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April 1, 2006

Welcome to the House System

A junior high school finds that its new system of social houses hasn't only improved school climate—it's raised student achievement.

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J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series provides a fictitious yet surprisingly instructive approach to school community building. The adolescent wizards who attend Hogwarts all belong to one of four social houses, which cross gender, racial, ethnic, social-class, age, and academic boundaries. This structure and the system in which students' behavior and accomplishments gain points for their houses provide Rowling's characters with a strong sense of community spirit and identity.

Three years ago, Goleta Valley Junior High, located in Goleta, California, was looking for some “wizardry” to improve its school climate. The school serves 900 7th and 8th graders; approximately 50 percent of our students are white and 40 percent Hispanic, with 26 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The school suffered from problems that plague early adolescents in junior high schools across the United States. In addition to their natural hormonal changes and identity struggles, our tweens were experiencing an increase in bullying, fighting, and racial segregation, and suspension rates were on the rise. Teachers observed a striking correlation between student unrest and declining academic performance.

As a staff, we searched for ways to help connect students to one another and to the school community as a whole. We considered dividing the school into small learning communities. As research has shown, small school environments can bolster “student affiliation with the school community” while increasing safety and order (Cotton, 2001, p. 50). Students are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities and less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as truancy or dropping out of school. The end results are more positive student attitudes and higher achievement for all.

Despite this encouraging research, the prospect of entirely reorganizing the school into multiple academies or academic houses seemed daunting. We had a new principal and a 20 percent staff turnover rate since the previous year. Statistics indicated that we would have a difficult time meeting No Child Left Behind objectives for all populations, which meant that we would need to dedicate significant time and resources to avoiding future sanctions. The time was not right for a major structural change. However, we still wanted to harness the benefits of small learning communities. Our principal, Paul Turnbull, who had observed social houses while growing up and teaching in Ontario and British Columbia, suggested we give the system a try.

Used in schools across Canada and Europe, social houses divide students into multiple social units rather than into separate academic entities. Each unit has its own identity and theme. At Goleta Valley, all students mix during the day in regular classrooms but divide into their four houses during social and academic competitions, community service activities, and schoolwide leadership meetings. The houses reflect the school's diversity, encompassing students of various races, ethnicities, ages, and academic abilities. Teachers and staff members are assigned to the houses to encourage stronger relationships between adults and students. Each house has approximately 230 students and 17 staff members. Once the houses are formed, they compete against one another for points and build a greater sense of community in the process.

Many faculty members endorsed the social house program, pointing out that it would fit the developmental needs of our junior high population. Social houses have the potential to lessen the anxiety caused by the transition from all-inclusive elementary classrooms to secondary school. A smaller environment can also reduce insecurities caused by rapid physical and psychological changes. At the same time, engaging house activities can harness and enhance some of the more positive attributes of early adolescence, such as students' burgeoning idealism and interest in the world.

Ready, Set, Go!

We actively solicited student involvement in designing the program. For example, students participated in the initial step of naming the four houses. After submitting names and voting on the possibilities, students chose “Blue Pirates,” “Red Sea Monkeys,” “White Buccaneers,” and “Golden Vikings.” A local artist created a logo for each house to place on posters, T-shirts, flags, and ID cards. Students selected the winning artwork.

Students, teachers, cafeteria employees, office staff, custodians, and even the security guard were assigned to one of the four houses. To help students and staff identify fellow members of their new social teams, we distributed T-shirts and campus IDs with house logos and displayed group pictures of the houses throughout the campus.

Our primary goal was to use social houses as a means of building school community. We hoped that a smaller-feeling school would promote new friendships among students and help them develop citizenship skills, stronger relationships with staff, and a greater sense of identity. A wide body of research suggested that improved school climate would also translate into better academic results in the classroom (Hoy & Hannum, 1997).

We communicated these goals to students at an opening assembly and described the program's point system. The house that earned the most points between September and June would earn a trophy called the Mariner Cup. Houses could accumulate points through acts of citizenship or achievement by individual students, participation in group competitions, and housewide contributions to the local community. With much anticipation and excitement, in November 2003 we officially commenced the first year of the social house program.

House Activities

Opportunities for Individuals to Earn Points

Organizing students into social houses provides staff with an effective and easy way to reinforce positive behaviors on campus. Teachers can give points to students who assist others, participate in class, demonstrate effort, or attend the homework center. For instance, an English teacher might award points to a shy student who overcomes his fear of public speaking by reading in front of the class. The teacher might also reward a fidgety student who, for the first time in two weeks, has managed to stay in her seat for the whole period. Outside the classroom, cafeteria employees might award points to students for picking up and throwing away someone else's trash. The librarian can offer points to students who are silent during quiet hours.

Students love the feeling of being “caught doing something good” by a staff member and feel excited about contributing points to their small communities. Staff members jot down the names of the point-earning students and the houses they represent in a standardized house point form that they send to the office secretary at the end of the week. The secretary tallies the points for each house and posts the results on campus the following week.

Our administration has capitalized on student enthusiasm for this system by creating additional academic incentives. Vice principals randomly enter classrooms to offer points to those students who have written down homework assignments in their agendas or brought writing instruments to class. In this way, our school leaders reinforce routines needed for academic success while interacting with the students in a fun, nonbureaucratic manner.

Although the main focus of the program is social and school climate improvement, we have implemented a few academics-related contests. For instance, we calculate the combined grade point averages of all students in each house at the end of the school year, awarding points to the group with the highest GPA. Also, some teachers choose to award individual points to students on the basis of academic criteria—for making particularly insightful comments in class, for example, or reaching their academic potential on an exam.

Welcome to the House System

Teens consider musicians their heroes more frequently than athletes and rate the influence of music higher than religion or books.

—Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, 1999

Group Competitions

Students can also gain points for their houses by participating in a myriad of interactive group activities on campus. House competitions, such as trivia matches, relay races, dodgeball games, or dance contests, take place every Tuesday at lunch. Students enthusiastically represent their houses and participate in activities that they might otherwise ignore. In the process, they build connections and friendships with people outside their normal peer groups. As one student told me, I used to hate lunch until the house activities started. Now I can participate in fun events, get points for my house, and make new friends instead of being bored.

Some teachers replicate the success of these lunchtime activities within their own classrooms. Because every class contains students from all four houses, teachers can easily divide the students into teams by house to participate in academic contests. The kids love joining their fellow housemates in games of history Jeopardy, science scavenger hunts, or grammar bingo. This sense of competition among house groups exponentially increases student engagement in the classroom. As one teacher remarked, I can take a regular activity and transform it into a house competition, making it one of the most thrilling lessons of the week. For example, I'll split the kids into their four house groups as part of a test review Jeopardy game. Students who are normally unenthusiastic in class practically jump out of their seats as they try to earn points for their houses.

Community Involvement

The house system also serves as a perfect forum for introducing the importance of community service. Many students enter junior high never having experienced the value of giving to others in need. We conduct annual clothing drives, book collections for our feeder elementary schools, and fund-raisers for the homeless. All houses receive points for their participation, but the real reward for students is experiencing the thrill of connecting with their local communities. Exposure to such opportunities can encourage lifelong commitments to community involvement.

Student Leadership

Faculty members nominate 8th graders as house representatives at the beginning of each school year, with 7th graders joining the mix in the spring. The representatives develop leadership capabilities through joint seminars and eventually divide into their four individual house committees to plan specific activities. Under the supervision of a teacher from their respective houses, the committees plan one lunchtime activity each month, a schoolwide dance, special theme days, and a community service fund-raiser—for example, the annual book drive, which garnered more than 1,700 books to be donated to Goleta Valley's feeder elementary schools.

Concerns About the House Program

Some teachers have asked whether competition among social houses might actually hurt school climate rather than making it more robust. If students were to take the house point system too seriously, fragmentation within the student body and lower self-esteem among the losing houses might result.

To address these concerns, during the last two years we have calibrated the point system to award participation, effort, and growth just as much as achievement. For instance, all house participants in a game of trivia are awarded points for effort, with the winning house getting only a few more points than the other teams. Students also receive benchmark rewards that recognize growth throughout the year. For example, the Golden Vikings could win a barbeque served by the principal if house members recycled more bottles in April than in March. Finally, all of our competitions are cooperative so that students never feel singled out for failure in front of their peers.

Another area of concern involves 8th graders, who seem to lose interest in the house program toward the end of their 8th grade year. To keep these students engaged, we are developing new opportunities for student leadership. For instance, 8th graders will gain life skills by mentoring 7th grade future house leaders. We are also creating 8th grade–only house competitions, such as a talent show and kickball matches, in which students compete against staff members. We also hope that our schoolwide international festival this spring, which will include multicultural poetry, sports, drama, trivia, and board game competitions, will reinvigorate 8th grade interest in the house program.

Another challenge of the program is getting teacher buy-in. Teachers who were not part of the original planning process might not understand how the program works or see the benefits of social houses. We are remedying this problem by putting on presentations about the program's benefits at the beginning of each school year and involving new faculty members in planning future house activities.

The Results

We have noticed numerous benefits of our social house program. Interviews with members of the school community indicate stronger and more relaxed bonds between students and staff. Students seem to enjoy working side by side with teachers as part of on-campus house activities and community service fund-raisers. One student explained, I feel closer to teachers who roll up their sleeves and join us in the house events. They're not just giving us grades—they're more on our level.

Paul Campbell, a 7th grade teacher, concurs: Students don't see us as the bad guys so much. They think it's great when we award them points or work with them to win a tug-of-war. There's more of a “we're in this together” feeling that spills into the classroom.

We have also observed significant decreases in school suspension and bullying rates. During the last two years, suspensions fell by almost 50 percent. Moreover, a two-year study conducted by the University of California–Santa Barbara found that reports of teasing, harmful rumors, and physical violence have decreased significantly since the inception of the house program (Greif & Furlong, 2005). We believe that houses have played an integral role in improving school climate to a point where students can focus on what matters most: achieving social and academic success. In fact, in the last year, Goleta Valley's Academic Performance Indicator (API) test score rose 35 points. This was four times greater than the previous year's API increase.

Word of the program has reached the six elementary schools that feed into Goleta Valley Junior High. As we conduct site visits to 6th grade classes within the district, students inundate us with questions like “Can I be a Pirate?” or “When will I find out what house I'm in?” Rather than feeling anxious about possible 8th grade bullies or getting lost on a large campus, these 6th graders are focusing on a positive aspect of junior high. And because they will enter the school in the fall with a positive attitude, they are more likely to be successful from the start.

One of the best ways to measure the impact of social houses is to observe our campus during lunchtime. A visitor will notice happy, smiling students of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities participating together in house activities. The overall atmosphere of our campus today is more upbeat, safe, and energetic. Social houses may have been just the stroke of magic that our school community needed.

References

Cotton, K. (2001). New small learning communities: Findings from recent literature. School Improvement Research Series. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Greif, J. L., & Furlong, M. J. (2005).Survey of bullying: Goleta Valley Junior High. Unpublished report. University of California–Santa Barbara, Center for School-Based Youth Development.

Hoy, W. K., & Hannum, J. W. (1997). Middle school climate: An empirical assessment of organizational health and student achievement. Educational Administration Quarterly, 33, 290–311.

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