How Being Part of a 'House' Within a School Helps Students Gain A Sense of Belonging

Students at Lake Canyon Elementary School sit together wearing their house colors. (Katie Fewell Photography )

Sept. 30, 2016 was a big day for Lake Canyon Elementary. Students, teachers, and staff arrived at the Galt, California, school wearing white shirts and before long were sent to stand by one of six large cardboard boxes. After a drum roll, cannons sprayed confetti over each cluster of students. The color matched one of six new banners, like the orange one reading “Sebete” and featuring a bear meant to symbolize courage. As music played, the boxes were ripped open to reveal matching T-shirts. Pulling them over their heads, students began doing something they’d continue every day until graduating: representing their house. Three semesters later, Principal Judi Hayes said, “Every part of our school culture now flows through the lens of the house system.”

If the image calls to mind Harry Potter being assigned to Gryffindor, that’s not far off the mark. The term “house” derives from English boarding schools where students once lived in a series of modest dwellings. More than a few U.S. universities, including Notre Dame and Rice, still give their dormitories a larger significance by, for example, allowing each “residential college” its own advisers and social events. The attachments formed tend to be so significant that alumni, upon meeting one another, frequently ask, “What college were you?”

That sense of camaraderie and identity is part of what schools like Lake Canyon are trying to develop. “We have first-graders on our campus that would never have the opportunity to become buddies with a fifth-grader,” Hayes said, “but now they see each other at the house meeting every Friday.” Sixth-grade teacher Val Seamons added, “They really deck out for those,” with kids even donning house-colored socks and tutus in a bid for extra points. Three days a week for the first two trimesters of the year, students eat lunch with their houses, and every morning the winning house from the previous day is announced. The house system also gives children the opportunity to interact with teachers they normally would have no cause to know, Hayes said, “creating smaller communities within the larger community where they can make stronger bonds and connections.”

Lake Canyon Elementary School ceremony assigning students to a house. (Katie Fewell Photography)

Those ties can be critical when dealing with children touched by trauma. Seamons described a first-grader who lost her mother, a teacher at the school, when a colloid cyst burst in the 34-year-old’s brain. Seamons said she expressed concern to the students of Sebete: “And the first kid stood up, and he said, ‘The Sebete house has got her.’ And this went all down the line. The kids were all like, ‘We’ve got her. The house has got her.' ”

Other opportunities to develop leadership skills arise from the patterns established by the house system, Seamons said. Sixth-graders shepherd kindergartners from their classrooms to house meetings, and some students have been tapped to take over house planning duties from the teachers.

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Principal Hayes believes these mentoring activities are to thank for helping reduce bullying and other behavioral problems. Since the house system was introduced at Lake Canyon, suspensions went from nine to zero, she said, and instances of students being sent to the office for discipline greatly decreased.

A sense of inclusion and engagement in a common enterprise can have academic benefits as well as social-emotional ones, according to Jennifer Kloczko, the principal of Stoneridge Elementary School in Roseville, California. Two teams of her teachers traveled to observe Lake Canyon’s house system in action as they launched their own. “When kids are really excited about school,” Kloczko said, “they are happier and they tend to learn more.” It’s a proposition supported by scholarly research tying a heightened sense of belonging to increased achievement.

Signs indicating Marrakech house at Hillsdale High School. (KQED/Samantha Shanahan)

HELPING KIDS TRANSITION

Another touted benefit of houses is easing transitions. Last year the incoming kindergarten students at Lake Canyon were welcomed by sixth-graders who had planned a new tradition. The big kids formed a cheering tunnel, placed a Hawaiian lei in one of the house colors around each little one’s neck, and invited them to play. Jeff Gilbert, the principal of Hillsdale High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, credits his school’s house system with helping ninth-graders acclimate to a student body of nearly 1,500 and what can be an overwhelming roster of classes and teachers.

Each Hillsdale ninth-grader spends five periods a day—math, English, social studies, science and advisory—with their 111 housemates. Four teachers coordinate with one another in mostly adjacent classrooms as they teach those subjects, and each takes responsibility for advising 28 of the house’s students, whom they follow through the end of sophomore year.

“You talk about students all the time,” Gilbert said. “You know every family, and you know every student. You stop dealing with them in these sort of large abstract cohorts.” In addition to allowing for “much more individualized responses,” he said, the house system helps replicate the coherence of the elementary experience. “Our honors students know our special ed students,” he said. “It’s not always perfect, but those cliques and those tensions have dramatically reduced.”

Teachers within the same house meet on a regular basis to discuss needs of students. Hillsdale High School English teacher Andrew Hartig (left), math teacher Michael McCall and other teachers within Marrakech House share observations on students and discuss solutions for how they can help. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Modern elementary and secondary house systems aren’t just a California thing. The 735 kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Richard J. Lee Elementary School in the small Dallas suburb of Coppell, Texas, eat lunch with their houses. Ottway Elementary in Greenville, Tennessee, provides students with lanyards marked by the colors and names of the school’s four houses, each named for a rare gemstone. And at Jackson Road Elementary School in Griffin, Georgia—where houses have not just missions, colors, chants and symbols but also hand signs and mottos—each classroom contains four colored containers. Students who earn a house point are given a bean to place in their house’s container which, along with the others, gets periodically emptied into a larger one near the front office.

BENEFITS TO SCHOOLS

Educators at schools like these claim additional systemic advantages. Gilbert said he thinks Hillsdale’s house system empowers teachers and in so doing gives the high school an edge in recruitment and retention. Kloczko said Stoneridge’s houses help attract parents in Roseville’s choice system: “It makes us special.” And according to Hayes, the staff at Lake Canyon is more united “because now they have another small group … they are collaborating with.”

Of course, the specific successes of Lake Canyon might have something to do with the way the school rolled out the idea. In the spring of 2016, Hayes, Seamons and six others traveled to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, a nonprofit middle school created to serve as a model school for educator training programs. After observing a house system in action there, the group volunteered to form a committee, calling themselves “the Hags” for “House Advisory Group.”

They introduced staff to the concept before school let out for summer and asked for help choosing the six character traits that would determine the house identities. “We really wanted a buy-in from the rest of the staff,” Seamons said. “They were familiar with the Harry Potter books,” Hayes added, “so it wasn’t a completely foreign concept,” but she made sure to hammer home the potential benefits. She was also careful not to demand too much extra work from teachers, setting aside about 25 minutes out of each 90-minute staff meeting for planning house meeting activities.

“There was no rhyme or reason” to the way Lake Canyon split students, teachers and staff up into six groups. They didn’t even pay attention to gender, but Hayes said, “It all kind of worked out.” (One thing the committee did massage: placement of children with special needs to ensure proper support.) Some people anticipated problems with students wanting to switch houses, but Hayes said that hasn’t really happened. “With the older kids, maybe their best friend is in a different house, and that’s an issue at lunch perhaps,” Seamons said, “but not really.”

TOOLS FOR IMPLEMENTATION 

One focus the Hags maintained throughout was positivity. In order for the house system to function as an effective way to reinforce desired behavior, unlike at Hogwarts, teachers and staff at Lake Canyon only award points, never taking them away. Seamons said teachers also take steps to emphasize the “friendly” part of “friendly competition,” because students need to be taught “how to compete successfully.”

Dan Green helped launch a house system at California’s Goleta Valley Junior High in 2003. In a paper on the topic, he wrote that some teachers worried competition might decrease collegiality and self-esteem. Administrators there responded by carefully calibrating the point system “to award participation, effort and growth just as much as achievement,” Green reported.

Lake Canyon’s experience would seem to provide a roadmap for successful implementation, but it might not be that simple. Hayes paid for things like the banners and T-shirts with a portion of federal funds the district won in 2012. At Stoneridge, Kloczko relied on the financial support of the school’s Parent Teacher Club, as well as nine teachers who fundraised to attend the Ron Clark Academy. Gilbert said Hillsdale received a smaller learning community planning grant in the late 1990s and another grant in 2002.

Aside from some expense, “it requires a long-term commitment,” Hayes said, as well as whole-school involvement.

There also doesn’t yet seem to be reliable data on the efficacy of houses. Lake Canyon’s suspensions decreased, yes, but causation is difficult to establish since the school launched a restorative justice discipline model around the same time.

Hayes was careful to add a final caveat: For a house system to succeed, there has to be something substantive behind it, an underlying ethos being reinforced. At Lake Canyon, that’s a list of 33 “soft skills” such as “do not brag” and “be courteous.”

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“The houses are not just a thing that you do,” Kloczko agreed. “It’s really your whole school culture.”

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