Advisory program gets direction

Consultants remark on high schools' differences

February 13, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

For Lauren Whittington and Caralyn Welliver, their adviser at Winters Mill High School is one of the most important adults in their lives.

Health teacher Sal Picataggi has advised the two juniors since ninth grade, helping them sort through such issues as college planning, job interviews and class schedules.

Above all, Picataggi and the students say, lasting relationships have developed during the three years of daily 20- minute advisory sessions.

"He plays an important role in our lives," Welliver, 16, of Westminster, said Thursday morning during an advisory period. "He's the one person we can tell everything to. He knows what's going on with us, here and outside of school."

At Winters Mill in Westminster, students are assigned to advisers based on their academic interests. Advisers work with the same students for all four years.

Advisory period starts out similar to homeroom at other schools, opening with the Pledge of Allegiance and announcements. Twice a week, students work through lessons on subjects such as respect and peer pressure. One day is designated for selected reading assignments, another for club meetings. Fridays are less structured.

In addition to meeting daily with his students, Picataggi gets to know their families. He follows his students' academic pursuits as well as their extracurricular activities.

To these students, Picataggi is a clearinghouse of helpful tips and a shoulder to lean on in stressful times.

They say the daily interaction with Picataggi is a reminder that he is there to help them.

"It's beneficial ... since I come here every day," said Whittington, 17, of Westminster. "It's not like going to the guidance counselor, where you have to have an appointment."

Carroll County's advisory program is one of several educational initiatives in the spotlight after a recent independent review that was conducted by Mellenbrook Policy Advisors, a Columbia-based policy analysis and research group. It concluded that while the concept is a winner, the district should provide more direction and consistency in how the advisory program is implemented at the district's seven high schools.

A three-member team from Mellenbrook wrote in a 71-page report that its research showed that increased one-on-one interaction between students and teachers led to greater student success.

"Even while we recommend the continuation of the Advisory program, we are concerned with the way in which it has been implemented and believe that a successful Advisory program will need modifications," the team wrote. "While there needs to be flexibility to respond to the differing needs of individual students, there needs to be a structure to Advisory that is much more consistent than the mix that currently exists."

The program is offered weekly at Century in Eldersburg, Francis Scott Key in Union Bridge and Liberty in Sykesville. It is offered every other week at North Carroll in Hampstead, South Carroll in Sykesville and Westminster High. Winters Mill is the only school that schedules daily sessions from 9:10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Picataggi said the daily meetings have enabled him to develop relationships with each of his students.

"If we didn't see these kids every day, it would detract from watching them grow. These kids will come to their adviser before anyone else in the school. About academics, about scheduling, about their life issues," he said. "That's the kind of thing that lasts a lifetime."

Even champions of the program worry that efforts to bring consistency may inadvertently water down the progress at schools like Winters Mill.

The proponents say it's important to set common standards and goals for the program but at the same time allow schools to address the unique needs of their students.

"I feel strongly that it needs to be a daily thing. But is it right for me to tell another principal it should be every day? No," said Sherri-Le W. Bream, principal at Winters Mill. "Give us what the expectations are, and then let us as a school determine what the structure should be."

But Harry T. Fogle, assistant superintendent of school management, said Mellenbrook's recommendation seemed unequivocal on the issue of consistency.

"What Mellenbrook said is there needs to be a consistent amount of time ... and a consistent content," Fogle said.

He said he plans to convene the district's principals within the next week to begin considering changes to the advisory program.

"We're going to look to principals as a group to come up with a recommendation that says advisory needs to cover these things and here is the time needed," he said.

Meanwhile, teachers such as Kirstie Troutman, who teaches algebra at Winters Mill, are concerned that their program could be scaled back.

"All schools aren't willing or able to structure their program the way we have," she said. "It's not fair to say that since other schools can't do it, we can't either."

Students like Tabi Kight, 17, a senior at Winters Mill who transferred from Westminster High two years ago, said she initially questioned the need for the program.

"In the beginning, it was like, `What is this?'" said Kight, who added that the program didn't exist at Westminster when she was there. "But now that we're seniors, we're glad we had that."

Other students at Winters Mill agree that the program has been a critical element in navigating high school. They said it's reassuring to know there's an adult at school watching out for them, someone who knows what they're going through.

"Not only is Mr. P a friend to us, he's an authority figure, too," Whittington said of Picataggi.

She said they know he'll come after them if he hears they're getting into trouble.

"He wants to set us on the right track," Welliver said.

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