Steamboat Middle School's new 'house system' promotes community engagement |

Steamboat Middle School’s new ‘house system’ fosters community engagement

Llama and sixth-grader Jeremiah MacGray proudly represent the Sleeping Giant “house” at a recent Steamboat Springs Middle School pep rally. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the spirit of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, Steamboat Springs Middle School divided its students this year into eight “houses” — groups of about 25 students from each of the three grade levels.

Carried out under this new competitive system, the Student Council’s annual holiday food drive brought in a whopping 1,100 pounds of donations for LiftUp of Routt County.

With the school’s ever-growing population, the house system is a way to increase a sense of community, said sixth-grade math and science teacher Garret Bock.

In a school that is “very segregated by grade level, it creates connections between grades,” said Spanish teacher Julie Warnke. “Kids get to meet each other, spend time together and develop an identity around the house.”

Bock brought the idea to Steamboat from a school he taught at in Denver, after pitching the concept to the students and faculty last year.

It was well received, and for its pilot year, the staff decided to ease into the system in a relatively low-key manner.

While they will likely do more next year, there wasn’t any magic hat sorting ceremony this year, said Warnke, given the tumultuous beginning of the year with a campus still under construction.

She said there was a little pushback on the idea from the eighth-graders at first. They weren’t sure about spending time with sixth- and seventh-graders.

But they quickly came around, and it is precisely those cross-grade relationships the system intends to foster, as well as leadership roles for the older students, Bock said.

The school is building a new peer-mentoring program they hope to integrate into the house system.

“If a sixth-grader is having issues navigating the world of middle school, they can talk to an eighth-grader who has been through it,” Bock said.

So far, Warnke said the school has run two pep rallies and the food drive through the house system, and the three events surpassed expectations.

“It all went so much better than I ever imagined,” Warnke said. “We are thrilled.”

While the students were always motivated to donate for the food drive, Warnke thinks the competition between houses added incentive and fun as they checked the barrels regularly throughout the collection effort, which contributed to this year’s particularly massive haul.

Sixth-grader Jeremiah MacGray described his collection strategy. When his family hosted its annual holiday party and requested guests bring donations instead of gifts, Jeremiah was able to bring in three huge reusable grocery bags filled with food, gift cards and hygienic products.

“They love healthy competition,” Warnke said. “And this turns competition into giving back to the community.”

Giving away the donations was “awesome,” according to Jeremiah.

“It’s sad other people don’t have family that comes around and don’t have much food,” Jeremiah added.

The winning house of Sleeping Giant, of which Jeremiah is a member, was rewarded with a pizza party. Other house names — all inspired by local geography — include Flat Tops, Hahn’s Peak and Emerald Mountain.

At the pep rallies, the houses participated in a variety of games and relays, including a life-size Hungry Hippos game, toilet papering teachers and a math competition. The choir and band performed, and the students dressed up in colors and costumes representing their respective houses.

The events are intended to “recognize all the different things kids do,” Warnke said. “And hit on all the gifts and talents of our kids.”

Each house has six teacher leaders and provides the opportunity for teachers to get to know different students.

The house system keeps track of student achievement all year and awards points based on grade point averages, attendance records, positive behavior acknowledgments and having the least number of discipline referrals. Ideally, the system motivates students to collectively improve those records, Bock said.

In her 18 years teaching at the middle school, Warnke said she is inspired by how the culture of the school has been transformed in recent years.

“It is such a positive, warm and welcoming place,” she said. “Teachers want to be there and love the students and have a strong philosophy focused on relationships and the whole child.”

So far, the new house system lends itself to further fostering that culture and philosophy, she added.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @KariHarden.

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