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Schools look at homework policy

The Suffolk School Board is evaluating the district’s homework policy after a parent of three elementary students asked the board to review it.

“They’re hurting families for no reason,” said Cathy Sturgeon, a children’s book author who has three children at Driver Elementary School. Her two sons are in fifth and third grades, and her daughter is in first grade.

Sturgeon said she sent emails to School Board members after growing increasingly frustrated with the amount of homework her children were assigned. They added it to the agenda at the board’s October meeting, where Sturgeon and another parent spoke on the topic prior to the board discussing it.

“I was done biting my tongue while my family was being negatively impacted,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense. It hurts our kids. There’s no benefit. Why are we still doing it?”

She cited research by authors Alfie Kohn, Sarah Bennett and Nancy Kalish, as well as pilot studies in districts across the country that were deemed a success and expanded.

“No research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework in elementary school,” Sturgeon said, quoting Kohn.

Among Hampton Roads school districts, Suffolk’s policy allows for the largest potential amount of nightly homework for elementary students, according to a presentation at the Oct. 12 meeting.

Suffolk allows up to 30 minutes for kindergarten students, up to 45 minutes for first-graders, up to 60 minutes for second-graders and up to 90 minutes for third- through fifth-graders. At the most, other districts in the area only go up to 60 minutes even for older elementary students.

In middle school and high school, Suffolk allows up to 20 minutes per class.

Sturgeon said her son is on a soccer team and does not have time to do homework on Mondays and Wednesdays. The family can’t go for a bike ride together because the children have homework. Her first-grader is mad at her when she has to stop imaginative play to do homework.

Sturgeon believes homework engenders a negative attitude toward school, kills the love of reading, reduces developmentally appropriate play, reduces family time and contributes to obesity. It’s also unfair that some students in the same grade, in the same school, get far more homework than others.

“I don’t know how they can justify it,” she said. The positive effects of homework are “not really strong until you get to high school, if you’re just looking at the evidence,” she said.

In last week’s board meeting, Pam Connor, director of elementary leadership, quoted a meta-analysis — or a “study of studies” — by John Hattie about the effects of homework. Even Hattie found the benefits of homework to be lowest at the elementary level.

Connor said the school division would take a number of steps, including asking principals to review the homework practices in their schools and including homework satisfaction questions in the annual parent survey.

But School Board members requested more timely and detailed action. More information will be brought back to the board next month.

“I think it should be totally abolished in elementary school,” School Board member Linda Bouchard said.

Other School Board members looked for balance in a revised policy, if one is proposed.

“Throwing the baby out with the bath water is a concern for me,” said Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck. “There has to be some balance.” But, she continued, “I have a major concern about 90 minutes of homework for an elementary child.”

Board member David Mitnick recommended 10 minutes of homework per grade level, a guideline already followed by many districts and schools, including Hampton.

Dr. Deran Whitney, the superintendent, acknowledged that students may be getting too much homework under the current policy.

“When I see 90 minutes, I do think that’s a bit much,” he said. He also noted dismissal times have changed: “Our students are getting out a lot later, so that’s impacting what they can do after school.”

Sturgeon said she is pleased the School Board has taken action so quickly after she contacted them. She also agreed there are times when it would be appropriate to send schoolwork home.

If a student had adequate time in class to finish work and did not, it could be sent home, she noted. If a child is falling behind in a specific area, optional work could be sent home. All children should be encouraged to read every night, but without reading logs. Students can review for benchmark tests at home, and they can even do additional work if the parent or child requests it.

But mandatory homework, losing recess for not turning it in, and homework impacting a student’s grade should be a thing of the past, she said.

“I don’t want to teach my child to defy their teacher,” she said. “I don’t want to take my son off his soccer team. But as a parent, there isn’t a good option. I’m stuck. Homework puts families in a bad situation without good results.”