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Longfellow Elementary uses ‘Harry Potter’-like house system to promote school pride, hard work and citizenship

On Friday before spring break, House Isibindi was declared the winner of the week in the House Cup competition at Longfellow Elementary in Spokane. Isibindi’s green banner hangs by the school’s front entrance for everyone, including the neighborhood, to see the winner.  (Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)
On Friday before spring break, House Isibindi was declared the winner of the week in the House Cup competition at Longfellow Elementary in Spokane. Isibindi’s green banner hangs by the school’s front entrance for everyone, including the neighborhood, to see the winner. (Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Things have been changing for the better at Longfellow Elementary School, a change that Principal Adam Oakley attributes to the school’s new focus on rewarding good behavior like staying on task in class, helping others and picking up trash outside the school.

Everyone in the school, from students to staff, is organized into four houses – Amistad (red), Reveur (blue), Isibindi (green) and Altruismo (black). While similar to the house system in the “Harry Potter” books and movies, Oakley said he got the idea from a fellow principal who founded his own school, Ron Clark.

“He’s well-known,” Oakley said. “He was on ‘Survivor’ a couple of seasons ago, actually. He’s a cool guy.”

When Oakley learned about the house system in use at the Ron Clark Academy middle school in Atlanta he was intrigued. Oakley got permission to use the same system, including the house names and crests. “We adapted it and made it ours,” he said.

Oakley arrived at Longfellow on Spokane’s North Side two years ago and made it a point to sit down to talk to every staff member about what was and wasn’t going well at the school.

“It was clear that the sense of pride wasn’t here,” he said. “I really wanted students to be proud to come here. We want to be the school that students want to go to, the school that teachers want to teach at, the school that parents want to bring their kids to.”

In early March 2020, the school held a grand kickoff event to launch the new house system. Students were “sorted” into their house by popping a black balloon to reveal a slip of paper with their house name written on it. Each student received a T-shirt in their house color with their house crest on it.

Two weeks later, schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It made things difficult, but teachers came up with ways to keep everything going, Oakley said.

The premise is that when students are caught doing something good, whether it’s being on task in class or doing something kind for someone else, they receive a single house point. The points are anonymous. No one keeps track of how many points a particular student may be earning.

At the end of each week, Oakley tallies the points and a banner with the color and crest of the winning house is hoisted high up on the outside wall of the school.

“I put the banner outside the school so the whole neighborhood knows who’s winning,” Oakley said.

And the neighborhood is paying attention. Oakley said he sees messages from parents pleased that “their” team has won a particular week. Some parents have also been asking for house T-shirts for themselves to match the children’s shirts.

“Parents have been really supportive,” he said.

In addition to creating stronger ties to the neighborhood and parents, the house system has also had an impact inside the school.

“It was an immediate culture change,” Oakley said. “We’re not focused on negative behavior. We’re only focused on positive behavior.”

In the 2019-20 school year (September through March), Longfellow had 40 exclusionary discipline incidents, Oakley said, which means that a student was suspended or expelled. This school year the number of such incidents is zero.

“Our kids want to be at school,” he said. “It’s a healthier, happier place to be, and I think the kids are feeling that.”

Oakley said the change is remarkable, particularly since the kids don’t get any prizes or tangible rewards if their team wins. They only get bragging rights for whatever week their team is on top. It’s a remarkably close race, with only 11 points separating the house in first place from the house in fourth place.

Now that students are back in class, Oakley is making plans for the future. Each new child that enrolls in the school spins a wheel to see which house they will join. Oakley hopes that next year, the school can start having a House Day once a month where each house, which includes students of all grade levels, work together on a project.

Nina Culver can be reached at nculver47@gmail.com

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