Focus

Creating Connections Through a House Formation

by HENRY B. RUSSELL

On a warm spring morning, our two high school staffs began their day of professional development in their respective cafeterias. On the walls of each was a card for every graduating senior with three questions: What is my plan for next year? What is a hobby or outside interest I have? What is my dream or lifetime goal? Staff members were asked to answer something on every card they could.

Focus_RussellHenry Russell

Between sessions and during lunch, the faculties could be seen scanning each card and filling in the answers. At the end of the day, the cards were collected. Stunningly, 33 percent of the cards were left blank. While both staffs had worked hard to develop relationships with students, how could so many get through their school without an adult knowing something so basic about them?

This was a humbling moment for everyone. Yet it also served as an affirmation that change was needed.

House Creation
Nine months earlier, a group of 50 individuals, half teachers and half parents/community members, began taking a hard look at how we were addressing the needs of high school students in the Independence, Mo., district. After 18 meetings, several recommendations emerged, including the call for small learning communities to banish anonymity at our high schools, which each enroll about 1,700 students.

The timing of this initiative could not have been better. It had become clear our traditional structure did not ensure each young person would be known well by at least one staff member in the building.

After investigating small learning-community models across the country, another group of educators and parents proposed creating heterogeneous small learning communities (what we came to call “houses”), each with 330 students across four grade levels. Students would stay with their house “families” for their entire high school experience and have the same counselor, assistant principal and faculty adviser — all of whom would be part of that house.

A teacher served as the leader for each house. Those who were selected for this role represented some of the most respected members of the staff. They were given two additional periods daily to plan professional development, weekly house meetings and work with 20-23 house teachers. The five house leaders at each school met daily with the coordinator of small learning communities to share ideas and strategies, synchronize activities, receive training and provide support to each other.

Because the house structure was not theme-based, teachers were asked to fill out a survey so each house could be representative of the entire faculty regarding experience, certification, extracurricular involvement, etc. Faculty also could indicate if there were certain colleagues they particularly hoped to work with or to avoid. Core teachers were to be evenly distributed among the houses, and faculty in elective areas would be assigned across as many house families as possible.

The first house meetings focused on teachers getting to know each other better. They quickly moved into how they were going to work as a team to create an environment where they could learn from each other, grow as a community and become a place where students would flourish. The teachers worked an entire year together in houses before students were assigned.

Geographic proximity was considered a high priority so teachers could interact with each other and with their students throughout the day. In addition, it would be easier to give a sense of identity to the house. Except for teachers who had unique facilities (music room, gym, etc.), all were relocated to new classrooms. This was a huge task, physically and psychologically, as faculty previously had been grouped by departments and some teachers had been in the same rooms for 30 years. House members worked together to determine who got what room within their small learning communities.

Keeping Connected
During this time of change, 14 community meetings were held to inform the public what was going on and why. Sessions with parents and teachers at the elementary, middle and high schools took place at locations throughout the district. Presentations were made to civic clubs, as well. The local newspaper sent a reporter to many of the meetings when we started and continued to publish articles on the progress of the changes. In addition, the school board received updates twice a year to ensure we were being true to the original recommendations.

Four years after initiating our houses, on another warm spring day, the faculties of our two high schools met in their respective cafeterias. They were surprised to see a card for each graduating senior placed on the walls surrounding them. The same three questions were listed and they were asked to respond to as many cards as they could. At the end of the day the cards were collected and no cards were blank. Seventy-five percent of the cards had all three questions answered.

Each high school has moved from five to four houses because of financial cutbacks in the district, but the structure has remained the same. Student achievement is increasing on both state and national measures, and relationships grow stronger every day.

Recently, our high school students were asked, “Is there at least one adult in your school you can go to with a problem?” Ninety-five percent said, “Yes.” Small learning communities can be a structure for creating a foundation of support where students’ voices can be heard and their dreams realized.

Henry Russell, a former superintendent, is assistant professor of educational leadership at University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo. E-mail: hrussell@ucmo.edu. Jim Hinson, superintendent in Independence, Mo., contributed to this article.