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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

House Systems in Secondary Schools

[Arms of the White Buccaneers, one of the four Goleta Valley houses] — Last month I posted a new page on “house systems” and residential college systems, noting that at the university level these terms are generally synonymous. I also issued a call for published references on house systems within secondary schools, and a correspondent kindly pointed me to this fine recent paper on a newly-established house system at the Goleta Valley Junior High School in Goleta, California:

  • Green, Daniel G. 2006. Welcome to the house system. Educational Leadership, 63(7): 64–67.

A publication record for the paper is available in the ERIC educational database.

The author begins with the obligatory Harry Potter reference, and then describes the motivation for the establishment of the Goleta house system. He notes that some people have advocated breaking up large schools into wholly independent instructional units, effectively creating multiple schools within a single buildings. Such a rearrangement would have been more than his institution could handle, however (and far more than is needed, in my opinion). “We had a new principal and a 20 percent staff turnover rate since the previous year…. The time was not right for a major structural change.”

The solution came from the school’s principal, Paul Turnbull, “who had observed social houses while growing up and teaching in Ontario and British Columbia.”

Used in schools across Canada and Europe, social houses divide students into multiple social units rather than into separate academic [curricular] entities. Each unit has its own identity and theme. [By “theme,” the author here means things like a house mascot and colors, and a house crest, as seen above; he isn’t referring to academic themes as seen in non-diverse university “theme halls.”] At Goleta Valley, all students mix during the day in regular classrooms but divide into their four houses [the White Buccaneers, the Golden Vikings, the Blue Pirates, and the Red Sea Monkeys] 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. [They are cross-sectional, just like good university-level residential colleges.] Teachers and staff members are assigned to the houses to encourage stronger relationships between adults and students. [Like the senior members of a residential college.] Each house has approximately 230 students and 17 staff members. [These houses, at the school level, are rightly smaller that university-level residential colleges, for which the ideal size is about 400. I might even make school-level houses smaller—perhaps in the 100–200 range for a grade 9–12 school, giving each house an intake of about 25–50 members per year.] Once the houses are formed, they compete against each other for points and build a greater sense of community in the process.

The outcome? “Interviews with members of the school community indicate stronger and more relaxed bonds between students and staff.” Furthermore:

We have also observed significant decreases in school suspension and bullying rates. During the last two years, suspensions fell by almost 50 percent…. We believe that the 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. [The houses, like university-level residential colleges, provide a family-like atmosphere that promotes social stability.] 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.

That mirrors precisely my own experiences with university freshmen coming into a residential college environment.

Finally, Green observes, it’s often the intangible aspects of a school’s life that undergo the most significant change when a house system, or a residential college system within a university, is established. This has also been my experience.

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.

For additional ideas and insights, see the special Collegiate Way news section on house systems in schools and colleges.

Related Collegiate Way News

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021