Jackson-Via focuses on the world, school culture through Sister Cities

Jackson-Via Elementary School took a page from the ‘Harry Potter’ series by sorting students into ‘houses’, like the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. However, the school’s home system is designed to teach students from places away from the real world.

At the start of the second year, Jackson-Via students are placed in groups of approximately 45 students who represent Charlottesville’s four sister cities: Besançon, France; Pleven, Bulgaria; Poggio a Caiano, Italy; and Winneba, Ghana. They stay in these houses until fourth grade, their last year in school.

Students meet their houses about four times a year. The two teachers who run each house plan activities to educate the students about the different cities and countries where they “resident”.

“It’s a great opportunity for teachers and students to bond,” said Elizabeth Jones, a reading specialist who runs the France-themed Maison du Savoir. “Teachers get to know other kids who aren’t in their regular classes.”

Since Jackson-Via established the homes four years ago, the Charlottesville Sister Cities Commission has directed a number of visitors from those cities to the school. The commission gave the school a $2,500 grant last year to support the homes.

Carol Smith, a special education teacher and leader of the Ghana-themed Akoma house, said the grant would fund an international food fair and other cultural events.

However, not all of the house’s activities are related to Charlottesville’s sister cities. Savoir House recently brought in a representative from the Wildlife Center of Virginia to teach students about their house mascot: the owl. After seeing a live bird up close, the students created an owl habitat next to the school building.

“We’re always trying to think of new ways to do practical things,” Jones said.

Jackson-Via teachers award students “house chips” to recognize exceptional behavior – similar to the point system at Hogwarts. But unlike Harry Potter and Friends, Jackson-Via students don’t lose points for their house when they misbehave.

Tracie Daniels, principal of Jackson-Via, said house leaders try to help students learn from their mistakes, “so that they, too, feel good about themselves.”

Next year, the houses will support Jackson-Via’s implementation of a positive behavioral interventions and supports approach in the school culture.

“The houses will help students engage in PBIS,” Smith said.

Smith said students will make presentations to kindergarteners and first graders about their home and corresponding sister city, and describe how the qualities of both reflect expectations for student behavior.

Smith said the house program helps students find common ground with each other and with people around the world. “We all have the same need for community,” she said.

Sckolher Berry, a third-grade student at the Italian-themed Sognare house, said she enjoyed meeting students from other classes at home meetings. She also said that discovering Italy made her want to visit Venice: “It’s one of my dream places.”

Sckolher said she was delighted to join one of the four houses before being sorted into Sognare last year.

“I knew all the houses would be a lot of fun,” she said. “I’m just happy to be in this group.”

Martha K. Merrill