Building a Village to Raise a Student

Jeremy Matuk is a history teacher and advisor at the Academy of Careers for Television and Film
Jeremy Matuk is a history teacher and advisor at the Academy of Careers for Television and Film

Sixteen-year-old Jackie Gutierrez was late to school again. She had not slept much because her sister’s baby had been crying. In the small house that she shared with her mother, her three siblings, and a crying infant, Gutierrez was on edge.

It was hard to concentrate on schoolwork and she was not feeling particularly motivated with all the distractions. It did not help that she was sometimes assigned the task of looking after the baby when her mother had to work and her older sister had to run errands.

She might have failed some classes at school had it not been for Jeremy Matuk, who noticed her absence. Not only did he sit Gutierrez down to understand what was happening at home, he took the initiative of speaking to her other teachers so that they would be more flexible. When Gutierrez got into arguments with other teachers and students, it was Matuk who mediated.

“He was my parent that cared, he always knew my situation and he could tell my emotion from my face,” said Gutierrez. “He is like my second dad.”

A history teacher, Jeremy Matuk was Jackie’s advisor at the Academy for Careers in Television and Film from 2011 to 2013. A high school with a focus on television and film production in Queen’s Long Island City, the school is a place where teachers and students are on a first-name basis and each of the 503 students is assigned an advisor whom they meet every day until graduation.

“Having an individual who is a point of contact for kids is one of the most effective measures in graduating high school, especially for at risk students,” said Edgar Rodriguez, the television and film high school’s principal.

While exact numbers are difficult to gauge, several small and charter high schools across the country have started advisory programs in the last decade. They are driven by a desire to forge relationships that will help get their most vulnerable students to and through college. Most agree that the advisory system is effective if well designed and implemented, but teachers caution that it does require a significant amount of extra work.

“The majority if not all of the KIPP schools has some sort of advisory program,” said Lauren Estebanell, director of counseling at KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate in Massachusetts who has been in the network for four years and often fielded calls about the advisory programs she started. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network has 162 charter schools across 20 states and the District of Columbia that serve mostly low-income students.

With an unscreened admission process, the television and film high school’s graduation rate has been consistently above 95 percent, much higher than the city average of 65 percent — an achievement to which Rodriguez credits the advisory program.

Unlike the traditional 10-minute homeroom, advisory at the television and film high school is a graded class based on attendance and participation. Each advisor spends nearly 40 minutes every day except Wednesday with the same group of 15 to 17 advisees for four years. “You spend so much time with the kids that you feel they are one of your own,” said Matuk.

During the 40 minutes, advisors take attendance and check in with each advisee. Then they might incorporate bonding exercises, film screenings, current affairs readings, ethics discussions, study hall, SAT preparation, college selection and financial aid information.

Attendance is taken very seriously. Advisors call parents immediately if a student fails to show up to school. The school has an average 93 percent attendance rate, compared to a citywide average of 86 percent.

“Attendance is key to graduation,” said Deb Lin, assistant principal at the television and film high school. “It doesn’t matter how good a teacher is if the student is not here.”

With access to their advisees’ grades and narrative comments from every subject area teacher, advisors monitor their advisee’s progress and ensure that they attend tutoring if necessary. They also have bimonthly one-on-one conversations with each advisee and meet with their parents at quarterly parent-teacher conferences.

To provide advisors with a deep understanding of their advisees, the television and film high school has developed a central data system. Every teacher is required to log each interaction with students and parents into the system. If the interaction is severe, such as removal from a class, the system will immediately send an email to the student’s advisor and relevant administrators.

The information is shared amongst the staff and each advisor can easily pull up all the relevant and most updated information about their advisees, such as absences, misbehavior, grades or logs of conversations their advisee or parents had with other teachers or administrators. Such information allows advisors to better understand their students. “If the students think you don’t know them, they are less likely to listen to you,” said Lin.

“Students are always surprised I know about what they have done, like missing school,” said Lin, who monitors the log every day and sees immediate response as key to improving behavior. “Once they know that we are constantly watching them, they begin to pay attention.”

Given the amount of work involved, many teachers admit that advisory is challenging. “Compared with teaching, where you get better after a while, with advisory, it’s different every day,” said English teacher Jessica Rosner.

Henry Grimm, a history teacher, says he sometimes devotes more time to advisory — up to five to six hours a week — than class preparation. Some days, Grimm needs to make more than 20 calls to track down a parent to ask about a child’s absence. Parents can call Grimm at all hours. “It’s a ton of work,” he said.

While advisory can potentially detract from time devoted to preparing for classroom instruction, Grimm, in his second year as a teacher, said being an advisor makes him a better teacher. “At first I was more scared of them than they were of me,” said Grimm. “Advisory allows me to become good at dealing with teenagers and managing their behaviors because of the frequent interaction.”

To ensure sufficient time to devote to advisories, teachers at the television and film high school only teach up to three classes a day, with an average of 25 students (at some schools, teachers have five periods a day with 34 students). They also have at least 75 minutes of free period a day. Such scheduling comes at the expense of a reduced number of elective courses, especially for the lower grades. Besides the film production program, younger students only take core academic subjects such as English, mathematics, science, social studies and physical education.

School administrators also ensure that advisors have a say in all the key decisions involving the advisory program whether it is content design or decisions about the composition of each cohort, said Lin. Most importantly, administrators emphasize advisory when interviewing job applicants to make sure they buy into the concept.

“We are hiring teachers but that’s the least of the role,” said Lin who has been on the hiring committee since the founding of the school. “We make sure they understand that being a teacher here is not just a teacher, but more like a parent.”

Jackie Gutierrez is a graduate of the Academy for Careers in Television and Film who benefitted greatly from the advisory program. She is now a teaching assistant at the school and is looking forward to becoming an advisor.

Gutierrez is now 19 and a part time teaching assistant at the school. She is working on getting certification to become a teacher and an advisor back at the television and film high school. Gutierrez said Matuk filled an important role during her high school years.

When Gutierrez behaved poorly, Matuk would sometimes stop talking with her — a tactic he used to make a point with advisees he was particularly close to. “I want to show them that there are consequences in life,” said Matuk.

It worked in Gutierrez’ case. “Jeremy was the one person that I could talk to in school and him not speaking to me was a wake up call,” said Gutierrez. “In a strange way, it was Jeremy’s way of showing care and I appreciated it.”

The frequent interaction in the advisory program helps to break the barrier between teachers and students and between adults and adolescents. “It models how a relationship with adults should be,” said senior Jonathan Alvarez. “It shows that adults are not another species of human.”

Parents in general appreciate the advisory program.

“Teachers here actually know my kid,” said Elizabeth Cuccia, whose son is a senior. She remembered how she had to bring along a photo of her older daughter (who did not attend the television and film high school) to parent teacher conferences to remind the teachers who her child was.

Gutierrez’s mother, Rosie Niebles, appreciates Matuk for being able to talk with her daughter about sensitive topics, such as school and career choices. “I wish my two older kids have someone like Jeremy.”

For all the hard work that advisors put in, the greatest reward comes on graduation day. At the television and film high school, it’s the advisors, not the principals, who welcome the students on stage and hand them their high school diplomas.

Lin, who teaches science and advised two graduating classes before becoming assistant principal last year, considers her advisees’ graduation days as some of the most rewarding of her teaching career.

“You feel like it’s your own kid graduating, instead of shaking their hands, you are hugging them,” said Matuk. “The level of closeness, it’s a feeling you don’t want end.”

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