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Much ado about homework

Addison Elementary leads homework discussions for elementary schools

The mere mention of homework conjures up stress in Palo Alto, but Addison Elementary School is trying to take the anxiety down a notch.

Addison is in the midst of reviewing and discussing its policies on the nightly routine.

The school surveyed parents on whether they were content with the quality of homework and the amount of time it took to do it. Staff also posted more than 100 articles in favor of, against and neutral on the issue at the Addison Web site.

Earlier this year, Addison held parent meetings to discuss homework practices at the school and what's required by the district.

According to Addison Principal John Lents, about 75 percent of the parents saw usefulness in homework but struggled with how to fit everything a child needs to do in one day.

Lents' new goal is to reduce the amount of busy work and improve the quality of homework.

"Instead of maybe writing new words out or looking up the definition in the dictionary, it could be looking at a word in a newspaper article and trying to find out the definition from the context," he said.

The school wants to connect the children with the world in which they live, he added. "Instead of 15 math problems, we want to you to play a mathematics game with your parents."

The effort to re-examine homework practices started when a few parents brought a newsletter article written by David Ackerman, the principal of Oak Knoll Elementary School in Menlo Park, to the attention of the Addison community, Lents said.

Oak Knoll recently reduced the homework load for their students.

"I was blindsided about the anxiety that seems to be around homework," Lents said. "We took a very deliberate non-reactive approach to educating ourselves and the parents about homework."

"Parents really want children to have a typical childhood," he said, "with unstructured time to play, piano lessons, boy scouts, and family time."

Addison is refining its homework policy, not eliminating it, he emphasized.

Elementary school parents confirmed they have mixed feelings about homework.

"Some homework is valuable. Some homework is repetitive and useless," Giuliana Fann, parent of a fourth-grader at Walter Hays, said.

"I think it's better to do it all in school," Steffie Deleeuw, parent of a first-grader at Addison, said. "I think at elementary school they should not have any homework."

Olenka Villarreal, parent of an Addison first-grader, said she prefers more homework.

"I wonder as a parent, are our children at a disadvantage by not keeping up?" she said.

Her daughter's friend attends Ormondale Elementary School in Woodside, where the kids do homework everyday.

"It seems to me he's progressing better," she said.

Local kids seemed nonplussed about the debate swirling around them.

"It makes you smarter," Aisha Chabane, an Addison second-grader, said about homework.

"Yeah, it's pretty fun," said Maki Yesuda, also an Addison second-grader, adding that kids have time for play dates, too.

Parents' Place educator and coach Marleen Didech, whom Addison staff invited in to talk with parents about homework, said the issue goes beyond Addison.

"Homework is generally an emotionally charged subject for parents," Didech said. "It's also clear that the (Palo Alto school) district is struggling with what the homework policy should be."

According to Palo Alto school district Director of Elementary Education Becki Cohn-Vargas, "This is the first time that this has come up as a big issue in the last eight years."

The district is not thinking about eliminating homework or changing it, just reviewing the policy, she said. She is currently talking with principals about the issue.

"We don't want homework to be extensive in the elementary school," she said. "We also want to be sure that the assignments have a purpose, and they're not busy work."

There's a diminishing return with too much homework, Cohn-Vargas said. Giving too much homework may lead students to become unmotivated, stressed out and lose time to play.

However, homework benefits children by teaching them self-discipline and gives parents a chance to see what their children are learning at school, she said.

The pressure created by the homework issue may stem from worries about the future <0x2014> and about the present, experts said.

"We're hearing that it's so difficult for our kids to get into college," said Gloria Moskowitz, a coordinator at Parents Place Express and licensed clinical social worker. But there is also a concern that parents feel they the kids are losing their childhood, she said.

"There's so much focus on work and work and work and is it in their best interest?"

Moskowitz agrees with Harvard University professor Dr. David Elkind, who found that students' sources of stress have grown dramatically over the years, including coming from parents.

She said parents feel a general uncertainty about what it will take to succeed in today's world. They think "we have to do everything we can to prepare our kids for this highly unstable, uncertain and competitive world," she said. "And we're going to start early."

Parents can tell whether their child is stressed out, Karen Friedland Brown, a parenting educator at Parents' Place said.

"If your child is irritable or having a lot of meltdowns, temper tantrums, that can be a sign," she said. "If their eating habits are changing, (that) can be another indication."

Didech coaches parents to "call a halt to homework if it goes on too long or if it becomes too frustrating." Both she and Cohn-Vargas said they do not want children to become so frustrated about their school work that they stop doing it.

The most important thing parents can do is help "make the experience more positive," Didech said. Parents can spend "a lot of time recognizing and encouraging their child's strengths."

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