On paper, Marcus Brown is a fifth-grader at Irving Elementary School in west Bloomington. But he has another title that’s way cooler: Leader of the Black House of Altruismo, the House of Givers.
Like something out of “Harry Potter,” Marcus’ school is the first in Bloomington-Normal to fully adopt a house system. Students are assigned to one of four houses—each with their own color and traits—and stay there until they leave the school. They compete throughout the year to earn points by going above and beyond the everyday expectations of an Irving student.
“Everyone works together as a team,” said Marcus, also a student council leader at Irving. “We all try to work together to earn house points, and if we win, we feel proud of ourselves because we’ve put in all this effort. We’re not supposed to brag about it, but we like to celebrate.”
The house system was created at Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, a national leader in education. A few years ago, Irving teacher Tom Hopper visited Ron Clark for professional development and decided to try out houses in his second-grade classroom. It was a hit, and new principal Messina Lambert expanded it schoolwide starting with the 2018-19 school year.
Lambert said it’s created a great culture at Irving, which has a lot of low-income students and those who come and go during the school year. Lambert said kids form quicker connections, root for each other, and are motivated to go the extra mile to earn points.
“There has been such pride (in this) at Irving, as this is what we do,” Lambert said. “We’re really proud to be the only school (in Bloomington-Normal) that’s doing it schoolwide. Although we’re not selfish, we would love to see other schools do it schoolwide as well, because the benefits to the kids is amazing.”
There are four houses at Irving: Black House of Altruismo (Givers), Red House of Amistad (Friendship), Green House of Isibindi (Courage), or the Blue House of Reveur (Dreamers). Irving’s 360 students are assigned their house randomly. Teachers and staff are in the houses too.
Points are awarded at a teacher’s discretion, like if a student if super-respectful of a peer or does something extraordinary. Points are tallied four times a year, when separate “house parties” are held and the school comes together in the gym to hear which house won.
“It’s huge to the kids. They love a house party,” Lambert said. “One of the tenets of having a house system is that we celebrate everybody all of the time. So even though there’s competition involved, it doesn’t matter whose house someone is in, if they earn a house point, we’re happy.”
Lambert said Irving is a great fit for the house system in part of because of its diverse student body. Around 80% of students come from low-income families—among the highest for any school in Bloomington-Normal. More than that, Irving’s high student mobility rate is 18%, meaning more students are coming into the school midyear than in other buildings.
Lambert, now in her second year as principal, said one of her goals was to make those new students feel part of something as soon as they arrive at Irving.
“It can take time to develop friendships and to get to know the ins and outs of a school that you have not attended before. Rules can be a little bit different. The expectations, from big things to small things,” Lambert said. “But I wanted those kids to have that collective feeling of belonging really fast.”
Hopper, the second-grade teacher who piloted the house system in his classroom, said the benefits became clear quickly. Students recognized they were part of something “bigger than themselves,” and the shared responsibility of the points system was a great motivator, he said.
“All of a sudden we had these kids who maybe wouldn’t have been working together before, but they had formed this kind of family inside this classroom,” Hopper said. “It'll be four or five kids, where the only real thing they had in common was the house they were in.”
The competition is fun, he said. There are scoreboards in the hallway. It’s good-natured, even if there is the occasional trash-talking, he said.
“Never once has any student asked me, ‘What are we gonna win?’ It’s never about that. It’s a sense of pride. It’s a sense of accomplishment, that they went out and did their best.”
Irving is only midway through its second year of the house system. Erin Knuth has taught at Irving for 13 years, so she remembers what it was like before Altruismo, Amistad, Isibindi, Reveur.
Knuth, who teaches fifth grade, said she loves it.
“You had your fifth grade, fourth grade, third grade—everybody was kind of separate before. Now, yes, you’re in a different grade level, but you’re still working together. You have fifth-graders working with first-graders because they’re in the same house. So it’s that cohesiveness, it’s that teamwork,” Knuth said. “We were missing that aspect of it prior.”
First-grade teacher Joy Searby said the students have totally bought in, especially the younger ones. Searby is a big “Harry Potter” fan, but like Knuth she was a little skeptical when Lambert first proposed expanding the house system schoolwide. It sounded like a big undertaking.
“It was a lot easier once we started talking about and seeing how practical it was. It’s not changing anything we already do. It’s just giving an additional way for positive reinforcement, which is easy,” Searby said.
Irving is still adding new elements to its house system. This year it rolled out house leaders—with extra responsibilities for Irving’s older students. Irving is also working to incorporate student council with its houses, adding a representative component to the system.
Fourth-grader Aaliyah Trice is a leader for the Red House of Amistad. She calls the job a privilege.
“We help little kids, like if they’re jumping around, calm down,” she said. “We help with the dances. We help with the cheers. We stand up in the crowd and we cheer our house on. It doesn’t matter what place they’re in, we clap for everybody.”
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