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Advisory Pilot Aims to Improve Student Social-Emotional Support

Female middle school students pose for the camera at lunch

Existing somewhere between a study hall, social psychology class and a social club, Advisory is a concept so foundational to Gateway’s theory of educational excellence that it is mandatory for all students at both the middle and high school levels. At both schools, students meet in small groups of around fifteen students with the same faculty member each year they are enrolled at Gateway, building a close-knit community of academic and social support. But that doesn’t happen without a lot of strategy and hard work, and middle and high school students have very different needs. Gateway Middle School is currently piloting a new advisory program the faculty hopes will pay even greater dividends in student confidence and success.

“We spend a great deal of time building community by getting to know one another with team building activities, community circles, and community-focused games,” said Aimee Heckman, who teaches humanities and learning seminar classes. “Additionally, Advisory provides a space for academic and social-emotional support, by having a weekly study-hall where students can check grades, complete work, and check-in with their Advisor.”

One of the primary purposes of Advisory is to make time in the school day to focus explicitly on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which refers to teaching and learning the tools we all use in social interactions and to manage our emotional responses to everyday challenges. Skills like social awareness, goal-setting, and taking responsibility for oneself are crucial in order to thrive in the classroom, in the workplace, and when navigating relationships. Over the summer, GMS teachers reviewed 11 different programs to find the one they thought was best suited to their students’ social and emotional needs, ultimately settling on one called Second Step

“Our school was really searching for a cohesively aligned SEL curriculum. We had experimented with various formats in Advisory throughout the years, some teacher-created, others from various programs,” said Aimee. “While these were all valuable resources, Second Step provided a pre-created and middle school-aligned curriculum with opportunities for differentiation for teachers and assessments.”

Because the elementary version of Second Step is popular with local K-5 schools, GMS faculty note that familiarity with the program is helping ease the transition to middle school for incoming sixth graders, and are looking forward to evaluating the impact that a consistent advisory program over all three years of middle school has on this young cohort.

“What has been valuable is the consistency of the program and the very clear steps and outlines to the program. Each lesson is equipped with activities and handouts as well as class meeting discussions questions and class challenge extension activities,” said Elizabeth Colen, an 8th grade humanities teacher. “This allows for the conversations to be more fruitful and focused on the goal. It is also beneficial that each grade level is working on the same themes. For example, unit one was about mindset and goals. So no matter what grade students were in this allowed for all students to be working through the same themes.” 

“Students can really see connections between the topics (in Advisory) and their lives, and I have had students reference the curriculum topics in other classes,” added Suzanne Herko, a seventh grade humanities teacher and student agency coordinator.

Ultimately, GMS staff are hopeful that the time and effort students and teachers alike put into advisory will pay off when students graduate from 8th grade and become full-fledged teenagers.

“Advisory gives them the space to talk about issues that surround students at their age — how do you set goals, how do you engage with positive peer relationships, how do you not be a bully, how do you make good choices, etc.,” said Elizabeth. “The goal would be that we have given students a chance to learn these skills in school so that when they transition to high school they can both be successful in their academics but also in their social lives as well.”