Administration, teachers, students reflect on 10 years of Advisory

English+teacher+Casey+Hanrahan+and+Junior+Taina+Colon+conferencing+about+grades+during+a+recent+Advisory.

Katie Walsh

English teacher Casey Hanrahan and Junior Taina Colon conferencing about grades during a recent Advisory.

Katie Walsh , Staff Writer

It’s been 10 years since Advisory was first implemented at DHS. Throughout those 10 years, teachers and students have held passionate opinions on the validity of the program.
Advisory was put into place during the 2006 – 2007 school year. The goal of the program, according to then-principal Catherine Richard, was “for every student to have some adult to go to who’s not their guidance counselor or their coach.”
Lisa Frese, a health teacher at the time who helped organize the formation of Advisory, told the Hatters’ Herald then that the program would help “create a personalized, safe environment” for students.
Still, faculty and students were filled with apprehension toward the idea. Many thought the added period once a week was being forced on the faculty and students, or that it would be a “waste of time.” Others felt the administration was pushing it because of pressure from NEASC, the district’s accreditation body.
In fact, NEA-Danbury, the teachers’ union, had to get involved because there were so many questions. Teachers are contracted to teach five classes, but wouldn’t this be a sixth class? Would they be trained? Would they have to create lessons, and if so, where would the time come from?
It went to mediation, but the district won and the program was established. The district, on its own, tried to appease the faculty by allowing a teacher to take a personal day (they are allowed three a year after achieving tenure) without having to explain why to Human Resources.
After a decade, many faculty and students are wondering about the program’s future. The administration, 10 years ago, said it would help to solve many of the problems the school faced — failure rates, poor attendance and disciplinary issues.
So the question is, has it?
Dan Donovan, the school’s new principal, doesn’t have any data to say one way or another. The school has made improvements over the years, but can the Advisory program take credit for any of them?
Donovan said he plans to study to issue. He believes changes may need to be made, but he’s unsure of what those may be. Still, he firmly believed in the benefits of Advisory when he was an assistant principal and he said nothing has altered that belief.
“Advisory is not going away,” he said.
He further defined the goal of Advisory as having “students make connections with an adult who does not grade or discipline them.” He said he wants Advisory to be used as a “resource for the kids.”
Senior Kyle Jordan says the “concept on paper is sound; however, student participation is low and forced participation is counter-productive to the ‘safe and comfortable’ environment imagined.”
Donovan noted, however, that Advisory continues to evolve for the benefit of students. For instance, this year in particular, the school is connecting freshman Advisories with the senior Peer Leadership program.
Mary Veach, a math teacher who has a freshman Advisory, said she likes the idea because it benefits the freshmen by “connecting with older students to learn right and wrong.”
Freshman Lusia Grigorio says her class, however, doesn’t see the peer leaders every Thursday, adding she wants “more of peer leaders every week; the teachers are not necessary.”
Freshman Vida Goncalves also says her “peer leaders help with creating plans for our future, and teach us about GPA.”
Another evolution of the program is that ESL 1 students are no longer mainstreamed in Advisories in which peers speak only English. Teachers had long complained that this wasn’t fair or safe for the ESL students, many of whom felt isolated and couldn’t participate in Advisory functions.
This change was created so that those students will have the opportunity to create a bond with other students and teachers who speak their language.
DHS is also required to follow state regulations. A recent rule that applies to the Class of 2020 will require 25 credits along with a capstone project such as a change project/internship.
Although the details for the projects are still being worked out throughout the state, Donovan plans to have students “use Advisory as a vehicle to implement and assess” the capstone project.
Students and faculty can look forward to future modifications to Advisory as Donovan currently has administration observing the different classes, which will help facilitate changes.
Veach has her own suggestion, saying she would like to see Advisory meet every other week rather than once a week. She would like to see it coincide with the one-hour early dismissal days every other Tuesday.
The Hatters’ Herald recently conducted a survey of students and teachers to take a pulse check on the program. Some teachers and students who participated asked that they remain anonymous.
A teacher who has senior Advisory students “would like to see an assembly weekly on a rotating basis of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors with appropriate presentations. I think there are many organizations that would be willing to present.”
Sophomore Shriya Ohinhak wrote in her response that, “Advisory should be used to do work [and] lift the load of work we have everyday.”
Every week teachers open their email to find the weekly lesson plan for Advisory. The lesson plans are created by business teacher Carmela Calafiore. She adjusts the curriculum depending on the grade of the class and creates it to “spark a discussion.”
Donovan has a say in the curriculum for Advisory however, he admits he is not “hands on with it.” He also mentioned they are “always looking for topics” and try to correlate the lesson with the happenings around the world and the school.
A large number of Advisory classes do not follow the prepared lessons. In fact, junior Gaia Mistriel was unaware that there were lessons.
Freshman Emily Halas finds [the lessons] repetitive in a sense that they keep going over ethics and how to treat others. Junior Emma Brenner describes the topics as “cliche.”
Senior David Wheeler calls the lessons “unhelpful, repetitive, childish, and redundant.”
A science teacher remarked that Advisory is “not always effective, especially when we have a lesson plan outside my comfort zone.”
However, the faculty is not required to follow the supplied lessons; they are allowed to come up with their own activities.
Raymond Marchinkoski, a first-year science teacher, has a junior Advisory and addresses the point that the students have “already heard the lessons from prior years.”
He starts his Advisory by going over the lesson for five minutes and then playing cards and getting to know the students better.
Some teachers have bought chess/checker sets, Jenga sets and other games to create a makeshift Maker’s Space.
Susan McKenzie, a music teacher, said she has her students add to a time capsule and gratitude jar. They open it the second semester of their senior year.
An English teacher said she “chooses to conference with students one-on-one about academics each week.”
Several students in the survey stated Advisory would be more enjoyable if teachers tossed the supplied lessons.
Sophomore Barkha Bhavsar said she enjoys Advisory as a study hall, “but would not like it at all if they followed the lessons.”
Junior Jonta Perez has a strong sense of dislike toward the period when it is used for lessons. He prefers it to be used as a study hall and calls it a great chance to complete homework.
A teacher who has a senior Advisory says he finds it difficult to engage the upper classmen, who find the lessons repetitive.
“Most of the students do not like to engage in the planned conversations,” he said, “which is frustrating.”
Sophomore Oona Furey said, “No one should be forced to partake in the lesson plans. If you need to shut your brain down once a week in Advisory, do so. Advisory should revolve around the mental health of an individual. Speak and participate if you please, shut down for while or catch up on work if you feel necessary.”
Many students and teachers would like to see changes to the lessons.
A junior suggests that seniors create the lesson plans because they have a “better understanding socially at the school, in comparison to teachers.”
Another junior says the lessons should be differentiated between grades: senior Advisories should have lessons on preparing for graduation and college or work, while 9th-11th graders could use the time to meet in their clubs and work on community service projects or attend assemblies and pep rallies.
Karen Lamb , a science teacher, would like to see Advisory become monthly. That way, she wrote, they can put “effort into making a good lesson instead of tweaking the same boring ones week after week.”
Still, many students find Advisory to be helpful in their personal and academic lives.
Charlie Reichl, a junior, says “Advisory helps set goals for the year.” A freshman stated that it “helps my social skills and communication.”
A junior has credited Advisory for helping her academically as her “ teacher gives tips on how to raise her grades.”
Donovan says five minutes taken from every class, once a week, to allow for these success stories is worth it.

Marchinkoski, despite only having his Advisory for one quarter, has developed a strong relationship with his students. He knows all of his students’ backstories and each week gets to know them better.
Mckenzie says, “Through the years I have developed special relationships with students but it takes a while for this to develop because we only see each other once a week. By the time students are seniors we have found common ground.”
Tyler Granja, a junior, appreciates his Advisory teacher because “she truly cares about us.” Brenner says her relationship with her teacher is close as “she puts all her effort into making sure we succeed.”
Senior Madison Mudgett says her Advisory teacher “is like a second mom. We’ve become very close.”
Not everyone is as lucky, though. The idea is to assign a freshman class to a teacher, and they will stay with each for the next four years. Junior Alex Cook has had three Advisory teachers so she has not “been able to create as strong as a bond” as she would have liked.
Perez said he’s had two Advisory teachers and failed to come up with either of their names.
A freshman points out that she has yet to develop a rapport with her teacher. “She doesn’t seem to be happy or like Advisory, which makes it less enjoyable.”
A senior wrote in the survey that she “used to absolutely love Advisory because [her] teacher was [her] Advisory mom and she helped us to be a family and it was wonderful. Now I have a new teacher and I don’t like it anymore.”
Donovan firmly says, “teachers build outstanding relationships with kids.” He recalled several students who have said the “teacher who impacted them most was a teacher they’ve never had” as an academic instructor.
Regarding the improvements seen at the high school, most teachers who responded said it was due more to what goes on in the regular classes — rigorous curriculum, holding students to higher standards.
Kimberly D’ Auria, a family and consumer science teacher, says this is not happening in Advisory as “we only meet with them once a week, That happens in our regular classes.”
Although there’s no data, Donovan said at least anecdotally he believes Advisory has contributed to the improvements.
“If kids feel comfortable in school, they’ll stay in school and the graduation rate will increase,” he said.