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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.

Houses for an Ohio High School

House systems—the school-level counterpart of university-level residential college systems—continue to attract attention across the United States. This week the Toledo Blade reports on the establishment of a new comprehensive house system at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio. It sounds to me as though they’ve got it just right.

St. John’s Jesuit adopting ‘house system’ for students

Article published Monday, November 24, 2008

Students at St. John’s Jesuit High School soon will be organized in a “house system” much like those increasingly being adopted in other U.S. private and parochial schools.

Students at the all-male, Catholic school will be divided into communities or “houses” that aim to serve as social support networks to provide them with more leadership opportunities, promote competition, increase student spirit, and strengthen relationships between students, faculty, and staff.

And in addition to identifying as a Titan, St. John’s Jesuit students also will represent one of eight Jesuit saints whose names will distinguish to which house they belong.

“It’s to build a community at St. John’s,” said Shane Hegde, president of student council.

The system has been a traditional feature of British schools for centuries, but it is gaining steam among parochial and private schools in the United States as conversations about American education point to the benefits of smaller learning communities.

Starting tomorrow, St. John’s will begin the shift to the new system. The school’s 842 students will be divided into eight houses of just more than 100 students each. [That’s just the right size for school-level houses. —RJO]

Each house will be composed of about 25 students from each of the four grade levels.

The students in the house will select peer leaders to represent each grade level.

They are to come up with a crest for their house, colors, and later a mission statement. [Arms, signs, symbols, colors, and a motto, yes, but please not a mission statement. —RJO]

A faculty member will be assigned to each house to serve as dean. Nothing will change, however, with the way students attend classes. [Perfect. House systems in schools, like residential college systems in universities, should be faculty-led and non-curricular. —RJO]

The structure is modeled after a similar setup at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, which started the house system in the fall of 2005.

Now, in its fourth year at the all-boys school of 930 students, the system is fully implemented with mentor groups replacing homerooms where teachers can check on students’ academic progress.

“It’s been a very successful program for us in working with our students from the day they walk into our building,” said Ron Luksic, dean of campus life at Moeller.

“If a student feels like they are happy where they are, they feel like they belong, they feel like they are recognized, they will do better with their academics,” he said.

For St. John’s, the move to the house system is not driven out of necessity, nor a guise to foster academic improvement, leaders say.

Rather it’s a move that school officials hope will set the private school apart from other local educational options available while creating a tighter community within the school.

“It emphasizes the other aspect of school aside from academics,” student council president Hegde said.

The idea came from the school’s new president, the Rev. Joaquin Martinez, who took the helm in July. It’s something that he learned about from friends and colleagues in Australia where they use the system, and it became more personal while he was attending Harvard University for a master’s degree.

Undergraduate students at Harvard are grouped into houses.

And while Father Martinez was attending graduate school, he had a nephew who was there as an undergraduate who kept talking about his house. [Many students do. —RJO]

“That made it very real for me,” he said.

Once at St. John’s, Father Martinez first introduced the idea to the student council with a marketing presentation.

The students asked questions and did their own research on the topic.

Once they were on board, which Father Martinez said didn’t take long, he began to shop the idea to faculty.

In early October, he sent a group of students and faculty members to Moeller to find out more about their implementation and see how the house system has worked there.

“The focus will be on student interaction and fostering an environment where they are connected,” said Jason Huther, an English and Latin teacher at St. John’s who visited Moeller.

Similar to Moeller, at St. John’s each house will incorporate four mentor groups that would eventually replace homerooms. Currently, about 30 students are grouped into homerooms by their grade level and last name. The mentor groups, which are expected to be fully in place by fall, would meet regularly to discuss house issues, problems, and homework overload, among other things.

“Our school has excellent academics, excellent extracurriculars, and athletics. One thing, I think, about Jesuit education is we take care of the whole student,” Father Martinez said. “One of the things I really thought this would do, I think it sort of gives you a good sense of being cared for.”

That is expected to help all students, but particularly freshmen, feel a connection to and within the school. Juniors and seniors will be put into mentoring positions over the underclassmen.

Tim Malone, the school’s principal, said 1 to 2 percent of students each year do not return.

Most of those who leave do so between the freshman and sophomore years. Leaders believe the new system will help retain more students, increase numbers on the honor roll, and raise school spirit.

To launch the system with its true spirit of competition, the St. John’s students will be pitted in a match of tug of war after they are assigned to their houses tomorrow. Similar events will take place throughout the year.

The competitive nature of the system is expected to help foster greater camaraderie within the school, one that school officials expect to carry over to student fund-raising efforts.

That was the case at Moeller, where they have had their most successful canned food drive and raffle.

“We always bring it back to the fact that it is everybody working together for one goal,” Mr. Luksic said.

Staying true to the model, the houses will compete for a house cup at the end of the year, including a roving trophy that Father Martinez is thinking of naming the Berchman’s Cup after the school’s namesake, St. John Berchman.

The cup will be awarded each year, based on a point system. Houses will get points based on their grade-point average, number of detentions, community service hours, attendance at sporting events, participation in intramural activities, and the outcome of a culminating field day.

“With so many positives, you just felt, ‘Come on, let’s get this going,’” Shane Hegde said.

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