Middle School divides into 4 furry houses

Chronicle Staff

Seventh grade dean Josh Budde is a Polecat, but he could have been a Garabaldi.

Ninth grade dean Jon Wimbish is a Badger, but he was almost a Wallaby.

Like all other members of the Harvard-Westlake middle school community, Budde and Wimbish were placed into houses named after Wolverine-related animals—Polecat, Otter, Badger or Ferret. These furry factions will compete against one another in the first annual Jacobson Cup, honoring the career of Barbara Jacobson, a proponent of the short-lived Harvard-Westlake house system that folded more than a decade ago. Every middle school student, teacher, administrator and staff member was given a wristband with the name of his house stamped into it that must be worn at all times.

If the Cup sounds too much like something from Harry Potter, Budde vows “there’s very little witchcraft in the Jacobson Cup.”

While the critters that the houses are named after are seemingly different, they’re “still all wolverines,” Wimbish said. And that’s just the point: the Jacobson cup and associated house system are meant to bring the school together and increase school spirit.

“We’re trying to shrink a rather large school,” Wimbish said. “I think the divide between kids in seventh and ninth grades is a lot bigger than that between kids in 10th and 12th grades.”

However, this system may even bridge the gap between seventh and 12th graders.

“Our perfect vision is for this to continue at the Upper School,” said Budde. A program such as the one to be implemented at the middle school, albeit one more “age-appropriate,” according to Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra, would be a “beneficial system.”

“If the student council approaches me with this, I would be absolutely excited about looking into possibilities to put this together…this thing could go!” Salamandra said.

The committee that pioneered the project, Wimbish, Budde, Athletic Director of Operations Darlene Bible and Math and French teacher Elizabeth Ilg, hopes to bring the middle school together with inter-house competitions. Ferrets vs. Otters may headline next year’s intramural dodgeball final. The polecats may be the victors in next year’s seventh grade retreat watermelon eating contest. A Cup competition filled day could become a spirit day staple. Budde even sees houses taking part in competitions outside of school, such as in bowling leagues.

The committee is looking to students especially to devise Cup competitions. In addition, each department at the Middle School is being urged to sponsor a Jacobson Cup event in order to better integrate faculty, who are also assigned to houses, and students.

Points would be awarded to the victors of such contests, as well as to the winners of a possible question-of-the-day. The committee has toyed with the idea of conducting surprise attendance checks of each house to give points to the team with the most students wearing their respective wristbands.

The aim is for the Jacobson Cup to be supplementary to the student life of the school, not to replace it. “We don’t want the Juggling Club to now fold because of this,” Budde said.
The committee hopes that students will get excited for the program but will still spend time organizing non Jacobson Cup events.

“The school and student councils have pushed for a greater sense of community and the Jacobson Cup fits in line with that,” Budde said. “We need a thing that everyone does.  The Jacobson Cup might be that thing.”

The committee decided against connecting the house system to student discipline: no points will be taken away from teams for misconduct and no points will be given to teams for good deeds. However, if a student disrupts or cheats in a Jacobson Cup event, he or she may be barred from Cup-related events for the remainder of her Harvard-Westlake career.

The idea was first brought into discussion at Harvard-Westlake by Budde.
“I had a vision,” Budde said with zen-like gravitas, gazing into the distance before laughing and confessing, “It’s not a new idea at all – many schools do it.”

“Naming [the houses] took a while,” Budde said. The committee first wanted to name houses after California symbols, like the state fish, the Garabaldi. Then the committee thought of naming the houses after “funny animals,” in the words of Budde, such as the monkey. Former Harvard and Westlake symbols like the Wallaby were voted down and the Saracen was deemed outdated. Finally, the committee decided on wolverine-related animals. A short-list included the four eventually accepted in addition to the weasel and the sloth (which is not a Mustelid). The committee decided many students would not appreciate being represented as conniving or lazy and promptly dropped those two and stuck with the four that are to compete for the Jacobson Cup next year.

Both Budde and Wimbish attended schools that had a house system. Harvard had a similar system decades ago and Westlake school had a two-team structure; both schools used colors rather than members of the family Mustelidae.

The Reds, Whites, Greens and Blues competed in football, basketball, volleyball, swimming, track, baseball and tennis for the Club Championship at Harvard. “It was fun, it was the way sports should be…purely recreational,” said Nat Reynolds, captain of the Blues in 1951 and former Headmaster of Westlake School. The system was anything but divisive, according to Reynolds and served as a good opportunity for students to learn new sports and especially to meet new people. “Coming in as a freshman, the senior captain of the Blues would talk to you.”

The Westlake system was “very spontaneous, not organized at the same level as at Harvard,” according to Reynolds. Annual Olympics were held between the white and gold teams but the Westlake system focused more on bringing students together. “It was there probably since close to the founding of the school.”

While this is its first year, the Cup planners are anything but short-sighted.
“Being a newer school that we really are, we don’t have the same traditions that older schools have.  We need traditions,” Budde said. “Our vision is for life…You’re a polecat until the day you die.”