Tates Creek sorts everyone into houses in reimagining middle school
Tates Creek Middle School took a new approach to arranging its students and staff at the beginning of 2019-20 – by sorting them into four houses like in the Harry Potter series. “The houses are playing a huge role as we embark on this journey of reimagining the middle experience,” said Principal Eric Thornsbury.
Most if not all of Fayette County’s other middle schools organize students by grade-level teams. One major difference at Tates Creek is that each house includes not only sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders but also teachers and other staff. That vertical dynamic fosters a sense of belonging, which is especially important for students from one-parent households, refugees and English learners, and children with no extended family in Lexington. “It will bring people together and end up developing competition around the school. I think it will work out really well,” said eighth-grader Peyton Prichard, who piloted a similar system last year in Tony Starks’ gifted/talented class.
When Starks divided his students into squads of Guardians, Ambassadors, Comrades, and Philosophers, they came up with cheers, designed T-shirts, and truly bought into the concept. “They feel connected, and it’s incredibly simple,” he said. Starks and colleagues Aimee Graham and Jayme Gill subsequently expanded the idea into schoolwide houses, developed the new mission this summer, and planned the sorting ceremonies. “It’s a Harry Potter feel, and it’s magical and exciting,” Starks said, comparing TCMS to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. “We came up with the houses and gave them meaning, and the kids will run with it.”
The four houses are:
- Jukumu (blue), which is Swahili for responsibility;
- Anclacha (yellow), a combination of anchor and ax in Spanish, for integrity;
- Aurore (red), French for dawn, focusing on respect; and
- Tayir (green), Arabic for bird, whose members demonstrate purposeful effort.
“They all have a story or fable that goes with them, IB (International Baccalaureate) learner trait, color, symbol, and crest,” said sixth-grade social studies teacher Alison Wathen, leader of House Anclacha. “All of our schoolwide structures have been adjusted to operate through our new house lens, and our kids are very invested in the changes.”
Fourteen-year-old Peyton likes that the house names incorporate four languages represented in the student population, noting, “We can have a more global mindset with our peers and through our content.”
The sorting ceremonies aimed to solidify the buy-in, and it seemed to work well. After the eighth-grade sorting, for instance, students noticed cafeteria workers wearing the colors of their house and high-fived them at lunch. The next day, the gym rocked with chants and applause as seventh- and then sixth-graders filed to the stage to pull a colored card out of a box. “It’s totally random. It’s brave. We’re risk-takers,” said Wathen, who acknowledged that staff might need to adjust the membership later to ensure equitable distribution.
After the students learned of their house, they signed its official registry and received a T-shirt and, in many cases, a big hug. Each month, students and staff will meet as a house, in which individuals from both groups will hold leadership positions. As the year progresses, students will also compete for the House Cup. Staff members can award points for excellent work in the classroom, service projects, helping a friend pick up books, or staying to clear a lunch table, for example.
“With the houses, it’s vertically aligned so students automatically have a family that’s all-encompassing. They have multiple people looking out for their well-being. It builds inclusivity and a broader sense of belonging to something bigger,” Wathen said. “It’s already built up the climate in our building,” she added. “We’re invested in the model and not just our own house.”