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No-homework policy improves home life for younger students at one Chicago school

Susan Notes:

Imagine this: Principal says families don't dictate what kids do at school so why should schools try to steal family time at home by assigning homework. Let's hope this homework banishment soon extends to all the grades--in all the elementary schools.

By Lauren Fitzpatrick

Ellis Rothke was not looking forward to starting first grade.

Until the 6-year-old learned it would be very different from kindergarten: No more assigned homework.

"I guess school won't be that bad now," he told his moms.

To the delight of its families, Hamilton Elementary has replaced homework for kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders this year with PDF -- play, downtime and family time -- along with lots of reading for fun.

Only a few days into the new year, life is already better, mother Sarah Rothberger said. Not only is there more time for family dinners every night, but evenings now are for playing UNO and Othello, and reading chapters from Laura Ingalls Wilder's "By The Banks of Plum Creek."

"There was a packet every week. It was a challenge at home to get him through a seven-hour day and then consider homework. He really, really hated it," Rothberger said. Weekends became all about pushing him to finish his sight words. His teacher believed it was important to start the homework habit.

"I understood her thoughts in that process, but it was making him really negative about school," Rothberger said. Principal James Gray said he read some research about an apparent lack of benefits of homework for such small children, floated the idea by some community members, and announced the new policy. Should his "grand experiment" work, Gray would consider expanding it as far as fifth grade; success will be judged on parent surveys, reports from home, and academic data.

CPS changed its own rules on mandatory homework in 2012, so nothing now prevents principals from copying the ban. So far, though, according to the district, Hamilton, 1650 W. Cornelia, might be the only school to declare this stance.

"Kids should read at home," Gray said. "We want them to read for pleasure."

Beyond that, he wondered, why should school dictate what families do, given that families can't control what happens in school?

The to-do list in Ellis' classroom features art, gym, library, ­reading -- nothing about homework assignments or collection. The first-graders have more time in class to learn together. Without, say, a take-home list of spelling words to drill at night, Ashton Brown has altered how she teaches spelling -- or word "study" as she calls it, since the children learn the words not just from a list but in the context of real writing. Any necessary drilling happens in class, whether all together or one-on-one.

One morning last week at the North Side school, Brown read aloud "I Can Be A Pal" projected onto a screen, then had her 27 children read the poem with her. She held up cards with words from the text and had each child find the word on the screen and stick the card onto the classâ board of sight words.

"E-v-e-r-y, every," she read from one card, then from another, "s-a-y, say." The children repeated her: "S-a-y, say."

A quick survey of the first-graders revealed joy at the change. With the exception of one little boy who worried he wouldn't learn enough without homework, kids said they'd get to play more with friends and siblings.

Alfie Kohn, author of "The Homework Myth," said he "should be pleased, but it is depressing to think that a common-sense move like this is so unusual that it counts as news."

"There is no evidence of any benefit of any kind of homework before high school. There are ways of helping kids to be organized in ways appropriate for their age level without making academics spill into the evening hours," Kohn said.

Other CPS parents have wondered how parents will keep talking with their children or stay connected with what's happening in class. And while that could be an issue in other schools, many Hamilton parents said that classroom Web pages and weekly teacher emails keep families in the know.

The Earnhart house is split on homework. Fourth-grader Gabriella hates it, preferring to be left alone to read; first-grader Nicholas doesn't mind as much but also reads a lot. Their mom, Heather Earnhart, hopes the policy quickly expands to fifth grade.

"This week my kids have been outside until it's time for bed, just playing, being kids, like I remember after school. When you come home from work, most people don't want to work," she added.

"That's what the kids need to do."

Email: lfitzpatrick@suntimes.com

— Lauren Fitzpatrick
Chicago Sun-Times



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