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The Rev. Thomas E. Johnson, Jr., Co-Founder & Head of School, The Neighborhood Academy

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The Neighborhood Academy is a college preparatory, grades 8–12 school serving low income students from a cross section of Pittsburgh neighborhoods.  It is our goal that TNA students, many of whom will be the first in their family to graduate from high school, will not only graduate but become competitive candidates for higher education and earn undergraduate degrees. In ten years, we have had 100% of our seniors accepted to a college or university.

TNA utilizes an “advisory program” to help our students learn the academic, personal, and social skills needed to succeed. High school advisory programs as defined by Schanfield (2010) are programs where teachers meet in small groups to help students “develop a sense of belonging, build strong relations and feel a connection to a school … as they learn life-long problem-solving skills” (p. 19).  Last winter we undertook a comprehensive review of the TNA advisory program; it was that review that led us to NACADA. With the help of a NACADA consultant, we were able to expand our vision for advisory and set goals and objectives which are much more clear, concrete, and achievable.

Our students are the sons and daughters of want, yet it is simplistic to say that poverty is solely a matter of a dearth of resources. While income factors into any discussion of poverty, a more holistic view takes into account a broad range of values and experiences that we call cultural knowledge. Successful college matriculation demands not only the rhetorical commitment to higher education but to a life structured to an acceptance that graduation from college is possible. Things as simple as a consistent dinner, discussion of academic progress, and a commitment to reading and discussion of ideas are crucial to a student becoming successful. It is especially difficult for our students because they are African American and quite simply, in many of their neighborhoods, to be well spoken, well read, and purposeful is to “act White.” How one spends time, energy, resources, and whether or not one sees being educated as a betrayal of one’s ethnicity are crucial issues to resolve in attaining the goal of a college education.

In the review of our advisory program, it was clear that we must be intentional in addressing all these issues. We had to intentionally teach students to organize their lives. To that end, teaching students time and project management skills were as important as teaching the “3Rs.” Second, we had to take on the difficult task of stating clearly that becoming well educated was not a betrayal of their heritage; difficult conversations given that the majority of our faculty is White and all of our students are Black. Advisory and our group counseling program provide the “safe” venue where these conversations can take place. Third, teenagers from poverty (I would offer teenagers within all levels of society) suffer from the absence of mature adults during the critical and often crisis filled phase of adolescence. The advisor is a resource for the student who is attempting to navigate the storms that can, under certain circumstances, tear a life apart in a way from which there can be no recovery: pregnancy, AIDS, gun violence, and drug deals that fill the eleven o’clock news.

It quickly became apparent that not all teachers want to be advisors. Loving and teaching one’s discipline is quite different than wanting to guide and nurture the “whole student.” Coupled with this is the reality of guilt and denial. Teachers everywhere like to think of themselves as caring people, but we found that some faculty are reluctant to admit their lack of ease in the role of advisor because they are afraid that they might be perceived by others (and themselves) as being unkind and uncaring. Their inability to admit to others, and themselves, their discomfort led to wide disparities in the quality of student advisory experiences; thus we paired advisors who were more skilled with those who were less skilled. Finally, we learned that we must impress upon teachers that their role as an advisor is as important as their role in the classroom, in athletics, or the arts. Simply put, being skilled, diligent, and intentional as an advisor is critical to our students’ success; this is not an “add on.”

What are the concrete “deliverables” from our review? First, we decided that the college counseling process must “reach down” to the lower grades. The role of the advisor is to assist the student in making reasoned choices, acquiring needed skills, and serving as the “reality check” that will make college possible. The “hidden curriculum” of the advisory program is to create a situation where the student has connected on a much deeper level with at least one person in our school community.

Second, the role of advisor is to prepare the student to access and take advantage of the support services that are a part of the college of their choice. How many students “crash and burn” because they either didn’t know about the services that were available or were too afraid or proud to ask for help in a timely fashion?  We want our students to know what academic advising is, how to use it, how to learn and ultimately benefit from it.

What did we learn from studying academic advising at the college level? What struck us all is that concepts like “intrusive advising” are relevant and useful to high school advisors. The insights we gained from articles on the NACADA Web site on advising underprepared students and transfer students (all of our students are essentially transfer students) are relevant to our goals and objectives. There is a wealth of insight from those operating at the college level, especially for those of us who are college prep schools serving the “under-served” in the inner city.

Second, there are a lot of schools that claim to have advisory programs, but how many teachers have been trained to take on this role? If we learned nothing else in our review, we have come to believe that advising is a necessary form of teaching. It is a form of teaching that can make the large school small and a small school that much more intimate. Advising as teaching has ramifications for the culture of the academic community, retention, and the school’s reputation. Two factors, professional development and evaluation, are crucial to embedding the role of the advisor as a norm in a school community. If the institution truly values advisory at any level, it must become a factor in hiring, training, and evaluation of faculty.

Third, for the urban poor to reach college, an advisor and the advisory program are essential. The deficits are more than academic. While quality classroom instruction is critical, the shaping of a student’s character, the learning that takes place at the dinner table in more affluent homes, and the need for an adolescent to be known is crucial in moving from the academic, emotional, psychological, and spiritual confines of poverty to the exploration of the sciences, the beauty of the arts, and the exhilaration of creative thought. The education that makes college a possibility extends far beyond the classroom;   advisors and advisory programs become the vehicle for this education.

 It is hoped that the sharing of our review, study, and visioning process makes some small contribution to what we believe is an important discussion in education at all levels. Teaching, in all its forms is critical, especially for the sons and daughters of deficit. The advisor as guide and teacher and the advisory program as vehicle is critical to removing the obstacles brought on by those deficits. 

The Rev. Thomas E. Johnson, Jr
Co-Founder & Head of School
The Neighborhood Academy
5231 Penn Avenue, Suite 200
Pittsburgh, PA  15224
TEL:  412-362-2001 x203
tom.johnson@theneighborhoodacademy.org
www.theneighborhoodacademy.org

Reference

Schanfield, M. R. (May – June 2010). Advisory advice. ASCA School Counselor

Cite this article using APA style as: Johnson, T.E. (2010, December). Advising as teaching: A high school advisory program as the vehicle for student success. Academic Advising Today, 33(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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