Advisory: A Family Moving Forward

When I joined Newburgh Free Academy West in September 2017, my life was at a crossroads. It was my fourth year teaching and my fourth school district having moved from city to city in search of that place I could call home. Up until this point, I focused on my growth by experiencing as many different settings as possible in my search for that one program with which I connected.

My journey began in France after receiving a scholarship to teach English abroad before moving back to the states to work in an inner-city charter school. I then followed this by joining a STEM school offering high school students opportunities to earn Associate’s degrees from a local community college, before ultimately stumbling upon Newburgh Free Academy West, New York’s latest Big Picture Learning school. It would be at this school where I would discover a new definition of what it means to be a family.

My previous experiences were nothing short of incredible. The faculty, the programs, and most importantly, the students, were simply amazing, yet I lacked that certain spark. This changed when I met my advisory.

You see, as educators, regardless of the setting, we teach our content in the hopes that the students will love it as much as we do. We wish that we can be positive role models in young people’s lives knowing that these investments may not show a return for years. Nonetheless, we work tirelessly to bring positivity, joy, and support trusting they extrapolate upon these brief moments with us by turning it into success, whatever that may be. Teachers inherently fulfill these roles, yet advisory takes this to a level much deeper and more connected when students from diverse backgrounds come together as one sharing the inner most details of their lives. It is in these groups where we discuss our fears looking at each other for support, ask for help when we are at our lowest, and tell our neighbor that we love them knowing that in the end our advisory is there through the highs and the lows.

My advisory, which they named Sparrow Hall, is a most beautiful group -- each with their own unique quirks, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, yet they all harbor love deep inside them. However, this is not to say that we have not experienced life’s struggles. Themes of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and just a general trauma affect many of my advisees who come from a city plagued with gang violence tearing families apart and poverty leaving many without hope. Students entered our advisory having never felt success in their lives with many seeing school as an institution failing them and their futures. They were right.

Many Americans go to school, go through the motions, and do what they need to do just to satisfy their graduation requirements without having truly learned any beneficial skills for their futures. Thankfully, NFA West is changing this dynamic, which truly brings me to this story’s subject. A bright and wonderful young woman, who I will call Julia in this story, brought me to tears the other day during her final exhibition where she highlighted this year’s academic progress and the skills she gained from her weekly internship.

Julia, like many of my students, comes from Newburgh having faced unimaginable struggles as a child. Growing up in a neighborhood riddled with crime, Julia experienced family incarcerations, watched people she knew engage in violence, and had the unfortunate reality of losing people she loves from gang activities. Her mother, an incredibly strong woman for whom I have the utmost respect, brought Julia to our school looking to give her a hopeful chance. She, like any mother, wants nothing but love, happiness, and success for her children. Her hope was that NFA West’s program, with our small classrooms, personalized real world instruction, and advisory system, would act as the necessary check for her daughter to reach her potential.

It was not easy at first, bringing a group of disenfranchised youth together in a room to talk about their feelings and goals with some eccentric advisor claiming that he wanted to build a family when many adults in their lives never cared. The first year was a struggle and Julia, like many of my kids, fought to keep her grades passing and her motivation high. During parent-teacher conferences, her mother and I would lecture her repeatedly on her attitude, beg her to try harder, and hope that just a little of what we said reached her adolescent mind that was more focused on hanging out with her friends and the latest notification on her social media accounts. Nonetheless, we made it to the end of our first year, my first year as an advisor, and the first time that I wanted to return to a job for a second year with hopes to continue to grow this family overflowing with potential. I realized that by the end of the year, maybe even before, that I loved them. I do not have children of my own, but I knew that I genuinely cared for each and every one of these kids. We had spent a year learning about each other as we cried in our advisory circles sharing our deepest feelings, laughed at our ridiculousness, as I happily watched friendships grow that would extend outside of school.

Now, as the second year comes to an end, I am glad to say that Julia is no longer that apathetic student who I have to chase down so that she passes her classes. Her teachers do not tell me about the piles of work she needs to make up and her mentor at her internship does not express how she needs to work more proactively. Julia has come a long way from that struggling student to this hard working person that I saw during final exhibitions where she spoke the longest she ever did during her presentation, explained her passion for culinary brilliantly, and outlined with precision what she exactly needs to do in order to meet her goals. The icing on the cake at the end of her exhibition, a delicious arroz con pollo that she proudly made at her internship, served by an enthusiastic Julia, with an awestruck mother watching while wearing a smile brimming from ear to ear.

Julia is simply one student out of many turning around their lives, believing in their potential, and it would take a book to explain all of these great individual successes. NFA West as a school works miracles with thanks to my incredible colleagues who work tirelessly to support our kids, my principal Ebony Clark for making this building come alive, to Dr. Padilla, our visionary superintendent who put this idea into action, and to all of our stakeholders whose support allows for us to develop and improve. I am simply grateful to share this journey, for the opportunity to work at a school that cares so deeply, and for institutions like Big Picture Learning that bring hope to so many young people all across the world seeking meaning and success.

Julia is one of many, but her story is hers to own and I could not be more proud of her or so hopeful for her future.