To reach and support all students, educators know that “one-size-fits-all” approaches simply will not work; students have varied strengths and weaknesses, talents, and needs. Individualized strategies and structures, such as advisory programs that allow for one-to-one teacher and student interactions, can help educators connect with students, identify their needs, and personalize academic and socioemotional support. With the goal of revamping their advisory program, Bronx Writing Academy (BWA), a middle school in the South Bronx, teamed up with Alicia Wolcott, an Eskolta senior school developer, to design and implement a new, individualized program. The school aimed to lower the student-toteacher ratio in some advisory groups and structure the program so that teachers could have more ownership over how they supported individual students.
Alicia led a group of BWA staff in focused conversations to identify the academic and socio-emotional needs of students and consider how various advisory groupings could best address those needs. They settled on an innovative tiered design, which consisted of four sets of groupings based on students’ needs. Tier 1 students are identified as more self-directed and attend a full class advisory of about twenty students. Students grouped in Tier 2 require some extra support, and meet in groups of ten to twelve. Tier 3 students require a moderate amount of support and meet in groups of three to five students. Finally, students in Tier 4 require the most support and meet for one-on-one advisory. Alicia worked with the team to define the tiers and the appropriate matches of adults for the different tier levels so that they could match student needs with advisor supports. The system is fluid, allowing students to move between tiers if their needs have changed. Thanks to their ability to engage all staff in the building, including volunteers from their nonprofit partner, Citizen Schools, BWA can maintain this high level of individualization. Ms. Meg Cassidy-Blum, a sixth-year teacher at the school, explained, “[The tiered advisory] is a chance for some of [the students] to express themselves in a way that they aren’t able to the rest of the day.”
Since the advisory system was implemented, BWA staff have noted multiple benefits: safe spaces to talk, closer relationships with advisors, and more opportunities to build independence. It has given teachers insight into socio-emotional factors in students’ lives and encouraged effective communication. Ms. Martin, a sixth-grade teacher at BWA, explained, “The tiered system allowed us to get more up close and personal with our kids.” Principal Kamar Samuels echoed that the individual interactions between students and teachers have been the most impactful part of the design, especially for students who need additional support.