GUEST BLOG: The Swanton Seven Initiative... The House System — Matt Smith, Swanton Middle School
By: Guest Blogger
Swanton Middle School is home to 400 students in grades 5-8 in Northwest Ohio. Approximately 45 percent of our students are socio-economically disadvantaged. Like many schools, our school faced challenges like student apathy, an increasing special education population that seemed to require more time and resources than we could allocate, lack of total student engagement, and low student motivation. The building leadership team was looking for something to tackle these challenges and transform our school into an atmosphere where students were excited about attending daily, a place where parents were confident sending their children, and a place where staff wanted to work. At first, we tried smaller-scale shifts and ideas (such as changing homework policies, various reward systems and schoolwide writing programs) to try and tackle our challenges, but we never saw a major impact.
We decided to embark on a new mission at our school called the Swanton Seven Initiative. This idea had been in the works for at least six months before we laid out any concrete plans. We were fortunate to receive a 21st Century Learning Grant, which, among many other wonderful things, allowed four of our teachers and I to attend a training at Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. We had discussed what it would be like to implement a “house” system before, but we really weren’t sure what we were doing. After that training, we knew not only that we could do it, but that we would start the next school year. The training in Atlanta was so fascinating that the five of us sketched out plans right there in the hotel. I called a staff meeting as soon as we returned from the trip and let everyone know we had a plan, albeit rough, but an idea of what we wanted to see at our school. We called on the staff to help and scheduled team meetings throughout the summer to refine our plan. A lot of hard work and time was dedicated to coming up with the following:
The Swanton Seven is devoted to promoting a positive learning culture while challenging all students to the best learning opportunities.
Our first task as a team was to identify and focus on seven objectives we wanted as our foundation by deliberately teaching and modeling them to our students and staff:
- Exhibit effective listening skills.
- Utilize excellent conversation skills.
- Use manners.
- Choose to work hard. Strive to be successful.
- Support, respect, and encourage people.
- Be honest and do not make excuses.
- Take pride in our school and yourself.
By teaching, modeling and striving to live out these seven “soft skills,” we empower each individual to reach his or her highest potential. To launch this new program, we created the story that long ago the leaders of Swanton buried a scroll in the old middle school building. The writers of the scroll asked that, upon discovery, four houses be created and students would be taught these seven philosophies. As a staff, we presented the story to the students and unveiled the official scroll, a treasure chest and the names of the four houses: Dignitas, Obduro, Gratus and Sapientia (DOGS, as we are the Bulldogs). Students were led to the gym in small groups, where they opened packages containing their official house welcome letters, T-shirts and designated wristbands while the rest of the school cheered them on. The students’ anticipation was moving. There was instant “buy-in.”
Students and staff members are awarded house points for exhibiting the seven objectives throughout the course of the day. Teachers keep track of point totals, and they are updated on an enormous scoreboard in the cafeteria each Friday. The competitive spirit has motivated each student to capture the lead and, ultimately, be awarded the House Points Belt for the week.
The success of the Swanton Seven Initiative would not be possible without the community and parental support we have received. This dream, turned into an idea, into a plan and into a philosophy, has not only changed our school and community but has set us on a course to drastically challenge and empower students. It has created an environment where being your best is an expectation of being part of the BullDOGS.
The Swanton Seven Initiative has fostered team building and brought our staff together. Teachers are dispersed among the houses to ensure each house has a core subject (English language arts, math, science or social studies) teacher from every grade level, an elective teacher, an intervention specialist and multiple members of support staff (such as secretaries, the school nurse, kitchen staff and custodians). This has strengthened our staff and supplemented our current grade-level teams, which share common planning times and weekly teacher-based team meetings. Staff members who typically don’t work directly with one another on a regular basis have connected. The same has happened with our students.
Students in each grade level were divided evenly by a randomizer to determine their houses. Each house has cultivated relationships that most likely would not have grown without the Swanton Seven Initiative. Teachers have individualized their houses by creating chants used to focus their students or silence their rooms. Each house also has its own special song that has helped build cohesion among students and staff. These chants and songs have extended into our community. For example, at the grocery store last week, I overheard a “P-U-R” followed by a louder return “P-L-E, go Sapientia!” The Swanton Seven has truly become our identity, both within and outside the school walls.
This academic year, we focused our community service project on a local food drive. We collected more than 3,000 goods to donate directly to our small community. While it may seem small or generic, this event sparked us to work on a yearlong project, Backpack Buddies, built off the Feeding America program. The program is a yearlong program to help the students of our community and surrounding areas. Students in families who sign up for the program take a discreet backpack home full of nutritious food for the weekend. We pack enough for at least three meals that will feed the family depending on how many family members there are. Families really appreciate they can count on this when needed throughout the year.
While it will take some time to know exactly how this initiative will affect our test scores and Ohio School Report Cards, we are optimistic and look forward to tracking the results in the future. What we do know is that since implementing the Swanton Seven Initiative, we’ve seen other positive results in our school. We had a record number of students invited and awarded at our annual academic awards night. We have seen a decrease in attendance issues and teacher discipline referrals. The interesting thing is that we hold students more accountable and to higher standards, and we still have seen at 20 percent decrease in behavior incidents. The Swanton Seven initiative clearly makes a difference for our school staff, our community and, most importantly, our students.
Matt Smith has been the principal of Swanton Middle School in Swanton, Ohio for four years. You can contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.