Courtney Harlow of the Frontier Culture Museum teaches Jackson-Via third-graders about trade in ancient Mali. Jackson-Via students learn about the modern nations of Bulgaria, France, Ghana and Italy through their Sister Cities "houses." Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Jackson-Via Elementary School has taken a page from the “Harry Potter” series by sorting students into “houses,” like the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. However, the house system at the school is designed to teach students about far-off places in the real world.

At the beginning of second grade, students at Jackson-Via are placed in groups of about 45 students that represent the four sister cities of Charlottesville: Besancon, France; Pleven, Bulgaria; Poggio a Caiano, Italy; and Winneba, Ghana. They remain in these houses through fourth grade, their last year at the school.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are always trying to think of new ways to do hands-on stuff,” Jones said.

Jackson-Via teachers award “house chips” to students to recognize exceptional behavior — similar to the points system at Hogwarts. But unlike Harry Potter and his friends, Jackson-Via students do not 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 they too will feel good about themselves.”

Next year, the houses will support Jackson-Via’s implementation of a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports approach to school culture.

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

Smith said that students will give presentations to kindergarteners and first-graders about their house 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 amongst themselves, and with people across the world. “We all have the same need for community,” she said.

Sckolher Berry, a third-grader in the Italy-themed Sognare House, said she has enjoyed meeting students  in other grades at house meetings. She also said that learning about Italy has made her want to visit Venice: “It’s one of my dream places.”

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

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

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Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.