Students protest forced lunchtime peer groups
When Cameron Lavell switched schools this year, he thought he’d be able to hang out with his buddies at lunch time.
He was wrong. Thanks to a controversial “house” system, the Grade 8 Ancaster Senior Public School student has been assigned to a predetermined peer group of a dozen grade 7s and 8s who must eat together during their lunch break.
There are 24 houses and they take turns eating 12 groups at a time because the lunchroom can only hold 150 students, requiring two, 20-minute shifts. That’s a change from last year, when the grades ate separately in different shifts.
Among the stated goals of the house system are to “create safe, nurturing and positive relationships with peers” and “build a sense of school-wide community and spirit.”
But Cameron, 13, who switched from St. Joachim, sees the system as an unfair restriction on his free time — a concern apparently shared by many other students and parents.
“I came here for my friends,” he says. “If my friends aren’t in the same class, I’d like to sit with them at lunch and be with them at recess.”
Friend Jacques Gross, also 13 and in Grade 8, agrees and isn’t taking the situation lying down. He’s voiced his objections at a school assembly and started a petition that had already collected 139 signatures by last Thursday — nearly half of all students.
After a meeting with parents, the school relented a bit last week by announcing kids can sit with whom they want on Wednesdays, a situation Jacques says “won’t solve a lot” because lunch will still be staged in shifts by houses.
He says students were told the houses are designed to stop bullying, but he feels like he’s babysitting Grade 7s and wonders why lunchtime is all of a sudden such a problem.
“The school’s been around since 1968 and Grade 7s have survived since then. I guess there’s been some bullies, but that’s life,” Jacques says.
“At first we thought it was just going to be the first week (of school). Once we found out it was going to be for the whole year, we were all upset,” he says. “We’re standing up for ourselves.”
Principal Lisa Neale says houses aren’t unique to Ancaster Senior and staff decided to extend them to the lunch hour because some students felt so intimidated walking into a room of 150 kids they wouldn’t do so.
She says students do other activities in the houses during the school day, allowing them to develop relationships with people outside of their peer group and grade, with older ones often mentoring younger ones.
While parents voiced objections to the new system at a recent school council meeting, Neale says she’s received positive feedback “quietly more than openly” and teachers have also noticed students are mixing more than in the past.
“For the first week of school, this is the first time they’ve seen pickup games of soccer and other students talking to other students, where the Grade 7s aren’t standing on the sidelines waiting to be invited into the Grade 8 game of soccer,” she says.
“The kids are playing right away.”
But a parent who asked not to be named says going to school has become a miserable experience for her Grade 7 daughter because she doesn’t feel safe in a house of mostly Grade 8 boys.
She says every parent she’s spoken to on her street doesn’t like the new approach to lunch hour and she’d think twice about sending her younger children to Ancaster Senior if the system remains in place as is.
“It’s disheartening when you have a student who is an A student — my daughter is outgoing, she’s social — and she’s coming home in tears every day,” the parent says, suggesting teachers like the system because it makes lunchtime supervision easier.
“It is a great concept; however, not every day at lunch time… Have special times to get out and do the activities. But at lunch hour, let the Grade 7s get to know the Grade 7s,” she says.
“I want my daughter to be with the children she’s going to graduate Grade 8 with, to be with the children she’s going to start high school with.”