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House System Builds Culture at Washington Elementary School

Washington students at House assembly

A Friday morning assembly – with lots of cheering and pom-pon waving – doesn’t seem like a recipe for calm.

But Washington Elementary School Principal Angelique Malone said the assembly, an integral part of the school’s new House System, has done exactly that. She notices students are focused and ready to direct their energy to learning after the assembly.

“Honestly, Fridays are our most calm day,” Malone said.

The House System was implemented this fall. It’s modeled after the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, a charter school. Every student and every staff member is assigned to one of four houses. The houses serve as learning and leadership communities, aimed at building a positive climate and culture.

At Washington, one classroom at each grade level is included in a house. That multi-age mix offers a big benefit, according to Kathy Trotter, a second grade teacher at Washington. “Kids feel like they have a bigger sense of belonging in the school,” she said. “It also builds some unity within different grade levels.”

The four houses (and their translation and country of origin) are:

Altruismo: the givers, Brazil

Amistad: friendship, Mexico

Isibindi: courage, South Africa

Reveur: dreamers/idealists, France

House members earn points for positive acts, such as participating in class, being helpful or kind, or persevering through difficult tasks. Parents can also earn points for their students by attending parent-teacher conferences. Points are entered and tracked in the learning management system ClassDojo. One student this year received house points by turning in a $20 bill found on the ground.

We talk about integrity – doing the right thing when nobody's watching. Malone

“We made the biggest deal about it (the $20 bill). We gave that House five extra points. After that, I had kids bringing me pennies,” she said, laughing. “You know what? I respect it. I admire it. It’s the point: You know it’s not yours, and you know the right thing to do.”

House points are shared at the weekly school assembly, which creates friendly competition among the houses. A winning house during October participated in a “Minute to Win It” assembly activity with a Halloween theme. A staff member raced against the clock to wrap a student, mummy-like, in toilet paper. The students counted down and cheered.

Amid the fun, there’s a more serious message of inclusion and equity in the House System, says Patty Bachmann, a Title I specialist at Washington. To her, the houses say, “We are here and we belong. Equity means having a place where you belong.” Bachmann also says the houses highlight the importance of being multilingual – a great match for a school with a student body roughly half Spanish-speaking and half English-speaking.

Given the pandemic, the House System came at the right time, Bachmann said. “To me, this is like fresh air. We needed this."

Headshot of Mary Kaull

Mary Kaull

Mary Kaull has worked in communications for the Rockford Public Schools since 2012. She has lived in near northwest Rockford for 30 years and has two adult children. In her spare time, she exercises, reads, cooks and contemplates her growing pile of craft materials. She is fostering her son's hunting dog, Seamus.

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