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Sulphur Springs K-8 joyfully embraces "house system" to bolster learning

Kindergartener Jeanmarcos Ramos is excited after picking a team bracelet from a bucket Monday at Sulphur Springs K-8 Community School. 
Kindergartener Jeanmarcos Ramos is excited after picking a team bracelet from a bucket Monday at Sulphur Springs K-8 Community School. 
Published Aug. 31, 2016

TAMPA

Sulphur Springs kindergartener Jeanmarcos Ramos reached through a slender opening and deep into a blue bucket Monday morning, his brow furrowed with concern.

What color bracelet would he pull out?

Please be yellow, please be yellow, please be yellow.

He seized hold of a bracelet, pulled up his arm and …

Yellow!

At that moment Jeanmarcos just might have been the happiest kid in the city. His grin, at least, had to be the biggest.

What did it mean? It meant many things. For starters, Jeanmarcos was part of the house of "Onesta," which is Italian for honesty. His house also was the same as his teacher's, a scenario he desired.

But perhaps more than anything, it indicated that the newly installed "six-house system" at Sulphur Springs K-8 Community School was off to an overwhelmingly happy start.

At times on Monday morning it seemed like all 750 students and 110 staff members at Sulphur Springs were downright ecstatic.

They all danced and cheered, and teachers wore house-colored T-shirts with fuzzy leggings and hats and so forth. The house colors — green, orange, blue, purple, yellow and red — swirled in the courtyard.

Teachers and students talked about how their house was going to be the best, and how they were going to earn points to win the house prizes, and how this house system was going to inspire a common surge to be better overall.

"This makes us feel excited to be in school," fifth-grader Ja'quan Shuriah said. "It makes us all feel more confident about working together."

Said fifth-grader Amarion Lock: "It makes me want to do better. It makes me want to have courage to be better."

And this, of course, is beautiful music to principal Julie Scardino, who in her fifth year at Sulphur Springs was searching for some way to step up the engagement of her students, many of whom have struggled in the past.

That's why in May, Scardino and 11 staff members traveled to Atlanta for a two-day seminar at the Ron Clark Academy, a school nationally renowned for innovation and success.

The group came away fired up and ready to change some things at Sulphur Springs. At the forefront it involved the installation of a "house system" — similar to what's used at the Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter series.

Ron Clark has run its system with resounding results.

The Sulphur Springs team worked through the summer, creating personalized versions of the houses. The end result was six houses with international flavor: "Juriya," an African word for perseverance; "Respeto," Spanish for respect; "Onesta," Italian for honesty; "Entegrite," Haitian for integrity; Valor, Spanish for courage; and "Uzwela," Swahili for compassion.

The group then designed curriculum for the first few weeks to teach students the meanings, concepts and goals of the houses. At the same time, the staff mapped out a point system for the house competition, which among other things involves giving points for good deeds, top scholarship and wearing the school uniform or house colors (namely a house T-shirt).

In the cafeteria, television monitors were mounted to give a running count on the house points race. At the end of each month, the winning house will receive a prize such as a party or perhaps a field trip.

The ultimate prize is scheduled to come at the end of the year, where the winning house will be rewarded with a huge gift, perhaps something like a trip to Washington, D.C.

"A trip to Washington would be the dream prize," Scardino said. "We would have to raise money and/or get sponsorships to pull that off, but it is a goal we want to achieve."

On Monday, with the full school-year ahead, it felt like just about anything was possible at Sulphur Springs.

"There was a whole new energy here in the first few weeks," assistant principal Christina Copeland said. "You can feel it everywhere. I'm excited. Everyone is excited.

"Now we just have to keep it going. We all want to keep it going. I really think we can do it."

Contact Scott Purks at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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