Wednesday, March 8, 2017
By Christina Mimms, SAIS
When young wizard Harry Potter and his new classmates arrive at the Hogwarts School, the first official order of business is for students to be sorted into their houses, which represent where they live, teams for competitions and, in some cases, their closest friends. While wizardry and quidditch games are atypical at most schools, many U.S. schools have adopted the English-style house systems to further the closeness of their small communities, as well as to add some fun to the academic atmosphere.
Atlanta’s Ron Clark Academy established a house system at its founding in 2007. Each student belongs to one of four houses. On the first day of school, the new 5th graders take a turn spinning a big wheel in the school’s lobby. A teacher then escorts them to the top of a staircase where they climb onto the big blue slide and whizz to the lobby. Down below, the wheel stops spinning and determines the student’s house. By the time the student reaches the bottom of the slide, other members of that house gather to welcome him or her into their house.
“We don’t worry about getting numbers even in the houses,” said Kyle Walcott, development officer for RCA. “We live by the wheel.”
Students seem to end up in the house that suits them well. Each house is associated with a certain theme. Amistad (current reigning champions) is the house of friendship, Altruismo is the house of givers, Reveur is the house of dreamers, and Isibindi is the house of courage.
Students receive shirts and ties in their house colors to wear as part of their uniform. The school store sells hats, scarves, and even Christmas ornaments with house colors and crests as well. The houses compete in different events, such as basketball games and field day, throughout the year to earn points. All houses create their own chants, cheers, and dances. Students do not lose points if they have a disciplinary infraction but they may not be able to earn points for a day or two.
Eighth graders serve as house leaders and mentor the younger students. A staff member serves as the head of house. For example, School Founder Ron Clark is the head of Reveur, which wears blue.
At the end of the school year, the school hosts a spirit day, which represents the last opportunity for students to earn points. After that event, staff members select the 8th grade leaders for the next year and total the points. The winning house receives bragging rights for the whole next year, and at an end of the year banquet, the school is decorated with the winning house’s colors.
Students learn to encourage not only those in their own houses but also the other houses. Students mix regularly with friends in the other groups – eating lunch together and socializing outside of school. Competitions are always friendly. “We’re not going to put down another house,” Walcott said. “We’re still going to encourage each other.”
With 113 students in 5th through 8th grades, it is unlikely that anyone will get lost in the crowd. So why add a house system to a small community? “We have one big family at RCA but the house system creates even closer bonds,” Walcott explained. “Students enjoy the spirit it instills in them, and they feel like they belong.”
The school also has observed parents benefiting from the house system. They routinely make friends with other parents within their child’s house and enjoy cheering for the houses at school events.
At Bodine School in Memphis, TN, which serves 1st-6th grade students with dyslexia, the houses focus on school spirit but the program also promotes interaction among students in different grade levels and brings students together in healthy competitions. The school’s houses were named for prominent dyslexics – Einstein, Da Vinci, Jobs, and Edison, which helps to empower the students as they work within their learning differences. “I’m amazed at how much the students enjoy it,” said Head of School John Murphy. “Students work really hard here, and it’s a great opportunity to blow off some steam and build them up. And they just think it’s fun.”
At the start of each school year, students go to a ceremony to be sorted into their houses. They receive a bandanna and a T-shirt with their house colors that they wear each Friday. They earn points through various events throughout the year. The school recently held a book drive with houses competing for the largest donation. The house with the most points at the end of the year receives the house cup.
Several years ago, after school administrators at The Bedford School in Fairburn, GA, attended a presentation about house systems at a state-sponsored conference, they decided to launch their own house program in 2010. Serving students with learning issues in grades 1 through 9, the school wanted to ensure that all students belonged to a team and enjoyed opportunities to build school spirit.
Students belong to one of the six houses that were named for prominent people who struggled with learning differences yet persevered: Churchill, Disney, Edison, Einstein, Patton, and Wilson. Each house has a designated quotation, Latin motto, and color that are displayed on its flag and T-shirt. For example, the Disney house uses the color blue. Their quote is “All your dreams can come true if you have the courage to pursue them.” Their Latin motto is "Spes sibs quisque" (Let each man’s hope be in himself.).
Two older students serve as house prefects, and a faculty member serves as house leader, receiving a small stipend for their work. Five or six teachers also belong to each of the houses.
Students gain points by earning honor roll status, displaying good behavior and citizenship, completing service projects, attending designated athletic and fine arts events, participating in school activities, and taking part in house tournaments and other competitions throughout the school year. Houses compete for “House of the Month” and the overall “House of the Year.” The flag of the House of the Month is displayed in the front lobby of the school, and the name of the House of the Year is engraved on Bedford’s House Cup.
The system has proven to be successful in getting and keeping students involved on campus. “When new students start, they already feel like they are part of something,” said Head of School and Lower School Principal Jeff James.
Launching the house system required a good amount of extra effort by school leaders, and tasks such as tracking the house points are ongoing. “I underestimated the time involved when we started it,” said Assistant Head and Middle School Principal Allison Day. “There’s a financial investment as well, for T-shirts and the activities.”
The benefits exceed the administrative requirements, however. “Students learn social skills and how to build each other up with positive encouragement,” Day said. “It’s great character education.”
At Darlington School in Rome, GA, houses serve as both the physical residences of upper school students as well the home bases for activities and celebrations, in which both resident and day students participate. All upper school teachers and students are assigned to one of the six houses. The program helps to foster community on campus and allows students to bond with faculty members outside the classroom. Each house is managed by a full-time head of house and faculty members who live on campus. The head of house essentially serves as the resident students’ parent, planning their birthday celebrations and even taking them to the doctor when needed.
House activities include social events, movie nights, trips to town for frozen yogurt, trivia nights, scavenger hunts, and the weekend-long annual RUMPUS competition.
The relationships that students build within their houses are crucial, according to Marcus Holmes, dean of residential life. “Knowing what’s going on with students, building that support network, building community, and having a partnership with parents are the greatest benefits,” he said. “It’s a family environment.”
Within their houses, students can take on leadership roles as well. Unlike other schools, where students typically remain in one house for the duration of their enrollment, Darlington students may change houses from year to year. The aspects of school spirit and camaraderie remain unchanged, however.
While house systems may not work on every campus, schools that employ them have found a unique way to raise school spirit and create more intimacy within their communities, while also deliberately mixing students of different ages. If school is considered a home away from home, why not create houses for students?