A 2015 Gallup Student Poll suggests that student engagement decreases from 75% in 5th grade to 55% in 7th grade. Students attribute the drop in engagement to “feeling less cared for by adults and seeing less value in their own work” (edweek.org).
Middle school is the most pivotal time in our students’ education, and at Coppinville Junior High in the Enterprise City Schools, we have two brief years to either “hook them” or “lose them.”
Rising seventh graders come to us from an elementary school setting where they are accustomed to three teachers at most, and to a small group of students they see every day. Junior high students can sometimes feel lost in a sea of faces that are constantly changing from morning through afternoon.
Research and common sense tell us that the social and emotional health of our students are tied directly to their academic success. Yet sometimes education focuses solely on the head and neglects the heart. Course standards, standardized testing, and educational fads may come and go, but one thing is certain, the whole-child approach to education is key to developing and preparing students for the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow.
A House System Lifts Up the Whole Child
I saw firsthand the power of the whole-child approach at Ron Clark Academy (RCA) in Atlanta, Georgia. RCA creates a culture of success by setting high standards in a safe, engaging, and supporting community environment. It’s a culture in which students and teachers respect one another and enjoy being together, further strengthening relationships and motivating both students and teachers to do their best.
Inspired by RCA, I worked with my building administrators and teachers to develop and strengthen a supportive community environment at our school. Following the RCA example, we implemented a house system designed to improve our school’s culture and to give every student, teacher, and staff member a place to belong.
We have five houses with about 90 7th and 8th graders in each house, with themes that echo our school motto: At Coppinville, we have Eagle Pride. We have the House of Positivity (green), the House of Responsibility (white), the House of Integrity (gray), the House of Determination (black), and the House of Excellence (gold). The letters spell ‘pride’ and the colors are our school colors.
Our house concept is our attempt to bridge the gap as students move from the close-knit smaller setting of elementary school to a larger junior high school atmosphere. Members of each house work together as a team to compete in academics, athletics, school spirit, good citizenship, community service, field day, school attendance, and a number of other things that come up at school that we can use as constructive competition.
The always-friendly rivalry builds a healthy community spirit where friendships are strengthened and school becomes a place where everyone feels connected. Our slogan for the year just past has been “Individually Unique; Together Complete.”
We Begin with the Sorting!
We start each school year with our House Sorting Ceremony where new students and seventh graders draw a house color out of the Sorting Trunk. This ceremony is very high energy and has a pep rally feel to it. Teachers and eighth grade house members are dressed in house colors, playing music, chanting, and holding signs to welcome new house members. It is very festive!
Our house system gives students a chance to be involved in the school community from their very first day. The houses are further broken down into family-like advocacy groups called Eagle Empowerment (EE). Students are able to develop socially, emotionally, and academically in these smaller group settings.
Aristotle once said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” We firmly believe that to teach a child, you must first reach that child.
Our EE communities consist of around twenty 7th and 8th grade students and two adults from the same house. The goal of regular EE meetings is to help all students feel like they belong at CJHS. We want our students to know that we care about them, their education, accomplishments, dreams, and future goals. We accomplish this through “getting to know me” and team building activities, and growth mindset lessons.
What We’re Learning about the House System
Our CJHS houses promote positive relationships with teachers and peers. House assignment is purposefully random so students work with and get to know kids outside of their normal social circles. This promotes a sense of belonging and connection at school.
Having others (teachers, peers) to turn to helps each student feel that our school is a place where they can get help if they need it. We gain trust inside our smaller group meetings (Eagle Empowerment) where our teachers and students learn about teamwork, empathy, and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.
We are particularly encouraged by the data showing that our house system has reduced conﬂicts and bullying. Students act out when they do not feel connected, lack a sense of belonging, and do not have anyone to reach out to. Our number of office referrals have been reduced by half and our students and faculty tell us in end-of-year surveys that they feel a growing sense of connectedness as our House system becomes an integral part of what we are as a school.
Media coverage: Coppinville Brings British Tradition to Enterprise
Carrie Heninger just completed her third year as an instructional partner at Coppinville Junior High School in Enterprise, Alabama and her sixteenth year in education. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who believes “there is unlimited potential inside of every learner young and old” and she works to inspire teachers and students to discover the full potential in themselves.