The Sorting: A Six-House System Unites Mill Creek Elementary’s Expanding Community

By Carmen Taylor Buchanan

Mill Creek Elementary School opened in 2009 to grades PreK-6. Over the last eight years, our student and staff population has dramatically increased. In fact, we are the third largest school in our district, just behind our two high schools. At the end of the 2015-2016 school year, over 900 students were enrolled at Mill Creek. Our district, Madison City Schools, projected that we would start 2016-2017 with over 1000 students.

To prepare for this immense growth, we analyzed our culture and climate. We wanted our huge school to feel small. Our students, faculty, and staff needed a way to connect with each other, invest in each other, and share in powerful moments together.

We needed to build stronger student to student relationships as well as student to teacher relationships. Another concern for us was the increase in office discipline referrals. We felt if students had a sense of belonging and built stronger connections with peers and adults, these referrals would decrease even though our population would continue to grow. There had to be a change.

Mill Creek Elementary

We Looked for a Program and Found a Mindset

We researched several programs that focused on creating a positive culture. We had a defining moment after visiting the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. Transformed by our visits, we realized that a program was not the key. We needed a mindset change, and we wanted to create something unique. A script was not the answer – in fact, breaking the script was!

By honoring everyone’s “take aways” from our visits and exploring our individual and collective belief systems, we created our House System. This is the foundation upon which we have created an atmosphere of excitement, engagement, belonging, mentoring, and a collaborative spirit that is like none other. These efforts have revived the culture and climate of our school.

How We Began

In the spring of 2016, each grade level met with administration to create what is now our House System. We all agreed that our character education program was the core ingredient in bringing about a new culture. Student connection remained our “why” as each group brainstormed ideas to create our House structure.

We were ready to try new things. With our change in mindset, we kept open minds and often said “why not” instead of “that won’t work.” Over the course of two days, our teachers collectively created the first iteration of our House System for Mill Creek.

Once our House System was created by the faculty team, administration met with our student leaders from our Character Council. Students added components that they wished to see. (Several contributing sixth graders commented that they were sad to be moving to middle school next year and would not be able to be a part of this.) Once all input was consolidated, our House System was presented to the entire faculty. Teachers left for the summer already excited about beginning the 2016-2017 school year. We attribute a lot of our subsequent success to faculty, staff, and student ownership because we made this new way of doing school together. This is ours!

How Our House System Works

When creating our House System, we ensured that our “why” stayed at the forefront of our minds by structuring our Houses based on what was best for students. The goals of the House System are to ensure that our large school has a small feel, to promote positive relationships and mentoring for students, to promote positive relationships between faculty and students, to give every student another caring adult, to instill a sense of pride in being a Mill Creek student and member of a House, and to boost character education.

Our House System is based on the Six Pillars of Character. We named our houses after the Latin name for each of the pillars. A color represents each House. House names and colors are:

House Fidelis – Trustworthiness – Blue

House Secundum – Respect – Yellow

House Officium – Responsibility – Green

House Aequum – Fairness – Orange

House Sollicitus – Caring – Red

House Civitate – Citizenship – Purple

Students, teachers, and staff all belong to a House. Houses are a part of everyday life in our school. Using Class Dojo, points are given by adults who see students exhibiting any one of the characteristics that our Houses represent. Points are displayed in our main hallway. Students love seeing which House is ahead and work hard to catch up if they are not in the lead.

We began with monthly awards for the winning House. We have since shifted efforts from extrinsic rewards and gratification to teaching the value of intrinsic satisfaction through exemplifying the character traits represented. Our plan for the coming year is to purchase flags to be flown outside of our school to show our community which House leads each week.

We use random drawings for House assignments. We began with our faculty and staff in the spring of 2016. Administration held a faculty meeting with a huge twist. Upbeat music played. Colorful props such as leis, pom poms, and huge welcome banners were in six corners. Each adult took turns randomly drawing for their House assignment.

Excitement filled the air. As each adult drew, you heard cheers and saw hugs as people ran to their House locations and were warmly welcomed by those already there. Even adults need a sense of belonging in the workplace. After seeing this reaction from adults, we could not wait to see the reactions from our students.

The Sorting

On the second day of school in the fall of 2016, grade level assemblies were held. Students were welcomed into our cafetorium as music played and adults cheered. Areas were colorfully decorated to represent our six Houses. After explaining our goals, structure, and the meaning of each House, students took turns drawing for their Houses.

Huge grins were on the faces of our students as they eagerly ran to their other House members. Students now belonged to something more than just their grade level and classroom. They immediately belonged to a House.

A Houses Cheer was created. The cheer incorporates each of the Six Pillars of Character and associated characteristics. Our cheer is performed by our entire school each morning. This starts our day and reminds us of what is expected from everyone in the building.

A Tightly Woven School Family

Our PTA partnered with us immediately. They purchased House shirts for everyone. In the summer of 2016, PTA Board Members and House Leadership Team members met and planned our first House Olympics. Students earned points by fundraising for school necessities and for winning team competitions. Students in each House took pride in their accomplishments and learned from their challenges.

A House Champion was determined. A trophy sits in our front office and displays the winning House’s color. The winning House was given money to purchase something for the school. Students in House Sollicitus (the winning House) voted to purchase soft seating in their House color for our rotunda. This is a tradition that will continue each year with our House Olympics.

Every month a House is highlighted. Each Wednesday for that month our school wears that House color. On our broadcast show, “Morning at the Mill,” students share attributes of each House along with practical ways of living out that pillar of character. Each House is celebrated by other Houses. We encourage pride in individual Houses while celebrating other Houses.

House Officium with assistant principal Karl Fernandez (r)

The aspect that makes us the most proud is our House Family structure. After implementing our House System for the first semester, we broke off into small groups or families. Each certified faculty member (teachers, administration, media specialists, etc.) is a House Mom or Dad. Students were assigned families. Families are diverse and range from fifteen to eighteen students and are comprised of all grade levels.

Invitations were sent to students by House Moms and Dads. Once again, students anticipated meeting their House Mom/Dad and their family members. We initially met quarterly. Our plan this coming year is to meet more frequently. During our House Family time, we participate in team building activities, practice proper etiquette, discuss goal setting, explore character education, and share in mentoring activities. This family time is something that everyone looks forward to.

Our schoolwide House Leadership Team meets at least quarterly. The teams bring feedback from teachers and students in order to tweak our implementation. All voices are heard. Our team works on next steps. This keeps our House System current and fresh as we address the needs of our current students and current situations.

Common Purpose Creates Common Passion

Our faculty and staff have a passion for educating, reaching, and supporting our students. Individual passions energize each of us. We now also have a common purpose that encompasses our passions.

We have ownership in our Houses because we created this for our school based on our belief system. Having this sense of purpose motivates us to go above and beyond for our students and for each other. Our Houses allow us to share in moments and experiences that deepen relationships with our students.

Mill Creek’s culture and climate is structured to ensure student success. As we refine and add components to our Houses, we are eager to see what Mill Creek’s future holds as we live our motto: Blazing a New Trail: Building Character, Curriculum, and Community.

What We Are Learning

House System success is measured in many ways. Our main goal was to see our discipline referrals decreased by 3%. According to iNow data, we showed a significant decrease of 9% in the 2016-2017 school year as compared to 2015-2016 – from 30% to 21%. In 2015-2016 there were 271 infractions with 900 students, and in 2016-2017 there were 219 infractions with 1002 students. If students are referred to administration, administrators discuss ways of making better choices while infusing that student’s House characteristic into the conversation.

Our House System goals surpassed our expectations. Soft pieces of data confirm this. People are intrigued about what we have created. When conducting teacher interviews, many candidates ask to hear more about our school. Teachers on the committee always share about the culture change brought about by our Houses. A news station heard about our Houses and filmed a news story about them. As new students enroll, they immediately draw for a House and are educated about our system.

A new member of House Aequum

One parent was brought to tears as she watched her children draw for their House. She explained that her children came from a small school and she was worried that they would just be another number in our large school. Seeing the excitement of our staff and from her own children about belonging to a House put her at ease.

Our House Families foster positive relationships. Younger students run into the welcoming arms of older students when we meet in our families. High fives and fist bumps are a common occurrence in our halls as students pass other family members. Teachers check on their student families. Students and teachers proudly wear their House colors. Family Trees displaying the thumbprints of family members hang outside teachers’ rooms. Hallways, cafeteria walls, and doors showcase Houses and families. Reminders of the Six Pillars of Character are in every area of our school.

Our character education is not just taught for ten minutes a day. We live it. When issued a challenge to exhibit the House traits, overnight our students brought in almost $7,000 for Hurricane Harvey relief. Houses and families create a small feel in our large school.

Schools visit to experience our culture. (We even got a visit from Ron Clark Academy teachers.) They all ask for the secret to our success. The secret lies in the autonomy to create something tailored to meet the needs of our students. We love to share about our Houses!

Second Graders

Where We Go From Here

Students, faculty, and parents are moved to tears talking about Mill Creek because we have something special. Two thousand words cannot adequately capture and articulate the difference our Houses have made. What we’ve created is one unique example of what can happen when educators share a growth mindset, are willing to take risks, and make decisions based on student needs.

Our Houses will always be a work in progress. Even though we have met the goals that we set, we will continue to expand and grow our system. We were honored at the Ron Clark Academy in November – one of seven schools to be showcased as a part of the academy’s “Revolution.” Since then, there have been a number of school visits to our school, including two from out of state.

We love our Houses! They make a huge difference.

Links about our Houses System

Mill Creek Elementary uses “house systems” to ease growing student population (WHNT – Channel 19)

Ron Clark Academy video about Mill Creek Elementary (Facebook)

In-house video

Carmen Taylor Buchanan is the principal of Mill Creek Elementary in Madison, AL. Mill Creek has been her home for four years. She is a firmer believer in: Relationships First, Relationships Second, Relationships Always. This belief is the foundation for all decisions at Mill Creek. Carmen taught language arts, social studies and performing arts and has also served as an instructional coach and assistant principal.

“Using a House System to “Raise the Whole Child” at Coppinville Junior High School”