House system made famous in ‘Harry Potter’ novels engages students at Denair Middle School

Denair Middle School will never be confused with the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry made famous in the “Harry Potter” series, but the two educational settings do have something in common – an organizational structure in which students and staff are divided up into what are known as Houses.

In author J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” adventures, the Hogwarts Houses are called Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. At DMS – which implemented the House system at the beginning of the current school year – they are known as Amethyst, Onyx, Diamond and Titanium.

At Thursday night’s meeting of the Denair Unified School District Board, trustees heard a presentation from the middle school’s principal, students and a staff member about how the House system is working.

The concept is simple. Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are evenly divided into four Houses, with students from each grade represented in each House. All the teachers and most of the support staff also are assigned a House. At DMS, there are about 70 students and 10 adults per House.

The students earn points for their House by working together to model positive behavior, support each other and compete in fun events against the other Houses. At the end of the year, the House with the most points will have its name etched on a permanent trophy.

Leadership teacher Clayton McDonald heard about the House system at a California Association of Directors of Activities conference he attended last year. Intrigued by the idea, he did some research online and found that it is used by schools representing different grade levels across the country. He pitched the concept to Principal Gabriela Sarmiento and she signed off, paving the way for it to be implemented at the beginning of this school year.

“We’ve been leaning into it,” McDonald told trustees. “At rallies, instead of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders sitting separately, they sit by Houses. We have friends competing with each other. It’s fun.”

Students are recognized and can earn points for extracurricular activities, participation in Spirit Week and rallies, wearing T-shirts with their House colors and competing during lunchtime in games like pickleball, basketball, volleyball and handball. Videos played Thursday night showed students excitedly working and playing together in many different situations.

Sarmiento said the response from students has been overwhelmingly positive. A student survey showed that they enjoyed mixing with people from other grade levels.

“Students who wouldn’t otherwise engage in an activity together are working together,” she said. “At the very least, it breaks that ice and they’re not strangers.”

Three students who spoke Thursday night echoed that reaction. 

“The best part is getting to talk to kids from other grades,” said eighth-grader Alexa Camacho, who is a member of House Onyx.

Seventh-grader Galilea Padilla, part of House Amethyst, hopes “it will unite our school and promote a positive culture.”

Eighth-grader Victor Sarmiento — the principal’s son and a House Diamond member – said, “The competitions are fun.”

Board members complimented the students and McDonald for how quickly they were able to launch the House system. Students in McDonald’s Leadership class met over the summer so the program was ready to go when school began in mid-August.

“I’m impressed you guys gave up parts of your summer to organize this. Keep the spirit going,” said Trustee Crystal Sousa.

Added Trustee Kathi Dunham-Filson: “Congratulations to you guys – you’re the founders. I’ve never seen kids at your rallies so excited and bought in.”

Gabriela Sarmiento said the next step is identify ways to integrate all the positive energy from the House system into the classroom.

“It’s great to provide opportunities for students to collaborate and have fun activities, but as a staff this week, we just started the conversation about how to incorporate academics into it,” she said.

In other action Thursday, trustees:

  • Heard an update from Superintendent Terry Metzger on the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP, and the progress Denair is making toward its LCAP goals.
  • Approved an overnight trip for 10 Denair FFA students to attend the California State FFA Leadership Convention on March 21-24 in Sacramento. The conference includes convention general sessions and workshops, a career show, a FFA national shop and more. Students must pay the $220 per person registration cost; the Denair Ag Boosters will cover food, transportation and lodging.
  • Authorized the Denair High School Sober Grad Committee to host Grad Night 2024 at Boomers in Modesto. Students will be transported from Denair High to Boomers at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 24 and return to Denair High School at approximately 2:30 a.m. All seniors in good standing are eligible to attend.
  • Ratified the 2024-25 comprehensive safety plan for the district’s four campuses.
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