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Questions lead to revised Carson City schools homework policy

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Franceska Quintana of Carson City knows how challenging it is to keep kids on top of their homework.

This past year, she would scan her first-grade daughter’s assignments every day from Bordewich Bray Elementary School with an app on her phone. When her seventh-grade daughter had to complete reading assignments or work packets for Carson Middle School or if her son or daughter attending Carson High School were submitting their own papers through Google Classroom or Docs, she would make sure they were checking in regularly through Zoom.

Quintana, a paraprofessional II at CMS who works with at-risk youth to ensure their academic success, became used to keeping a close eye on homework all around when digital learning became key this semester for Carson City School District schools and families once the coronavirus struck.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” she said. “It was tough sometimes, but you did want to stay on top of it.”

The dual perspective Miss Frankie, as Quintana is known to her fellow staff and students, holds as a CCSD employee and parent makes her appreciate CCSD’s Board of Trustees’ recent discussion on updating its homework policy and regulations. Administrators and teachers are holding conversations about whether assignments at home are reinforcing concepts introduced in the classroom, if the work is sufficient to grasp those concepts as students should and how to better assist the teachers trying to assist the students.

The two board items that came up for a first reading on June 9 and were approved during the second reading this Tuesday had not been revised since August 1979. The language was outdated, vague and did not cover nearly enough ground to help all Carson City students and teachers as originally written.

For Quintana, the dialogue was useful.

“I’ve heard complaints on both sides, that there’s too much or not enough, but I haven’t had any issues,” she said. “But I haven’t had any qualms that it may look like it’s too much, that it’s too hard.”

After nearly a year and a half of research and input from various district administrators, staff members and parents overseen by associate superintendent Tasha Fuson, the policy and regulations now reflect a contemporary approach to help students develop study habits and teachers to assess their pupils’ mastery of different subjects while in school.

Middle school misunderstanding

Policies on whether homework was meant to be assigned to middle school students never were clear, district officials say. Inconsistent practices from campus to campus began raising questions for teachers and parents. The district’s entire look at the policy began here.

Former assistant superintendent of educational services Susan Keema, who left the district last year, began collaborating with other stakeholders. They felt the regulations were in need of an update to benefit students and teachers mutually.

“Homework must strike a balance between family life and student needs,” Fuson told the board on June 9. “We are trying to capture everyone’s beliefs about homework. What does it look like? … Having six hours of homework is not an acceptable expectation, but not having any homework is not an acceptable expectation, either.”

With the help of other administrators, including Valerie Dockery, who oversees the district’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) advisory team, and Joanna Kaiser, a GATE implementation specialist, the group had tasked Fuson to begin researching viable solutions to a new policy. It was discovered some middle school teachers were under the notion students were not allowed to be given homework at their level. Even parents of high school children were unsure of how to fully support their older students, Fuson said, so she and her colleagues set out to find best homework practices according to previous research and successful precedents from other districts.

As the committee explored the issue more, Fuson, once a principal for Washoe County’s Spanish Springs High School, sought greater consistency that would serve all populations of students, including special education, GATE participants, Honors and Advanced Placement, English language learners or the typical student requiring as much or as little assistance within or outside the classroom.

Dockery said she was pleased to see new recommendations come forth.

“It’s important for principals to go back and review the policy and work with staff and make sure they’re adhering to the policy that calls out what homework is for and what it’s not for,” Dockery said.

However, up until the 2019-20 school year in Carson City, homework for middle school students largely was thought to be optional depending on where they attended, whose class they were enrolled in or how the teacher understood the district’s policy regarding it. If elementary students were required to complete a certain amount of work each night after school, then some middle school students could go with or without it, then transition to high school with the sudden expectation of nightly responsibilities beyond the classroom, how would students be prepared beyond their K-12 studies if lacking a logical, challenging progression in their mastery of skills and workmanship?

“No one could really figure out how to meet the needs of the grade levels, but by being able to take model policies and research and best practices, that’s how our team was able to come up with solutions without having to reinvent the wheel,” Fuson told the Appeal.

How much is too much?

Concerns also developed around the amount of work students were being assigned at any level. Everyone has assumptions and expectations about what learning should look like, just as every parent has their own idea of how much homework would actually benefit their child, the committee determined. But placing reasonable caps on students’ nightly workloads would be the target.

The board members agreed when Fuson presented the first reading of the revised item at the school board’s June 9 meeting. Fuson said the intent was to ensure all students of all levels – including GATE, English language learners and special education – would be given equal consideration.

Trustee Joe Cacioppo said in talks with district counselor Mandy Chambers, students were told for every hour of class, they were to be given three hours of homework. He shared his own daughter frequently studied and worked until the early hours of the morning.

“We don’t want to inadvertently cause kids to have to study for three exams in one evening,” Cacioppo said.

Does quantity really count for quality when it comes to what students are learning, though?

According to a 2012 survey cited by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 13 percent of 17-year-olds committed more than two hours to homework in an evening. About 27 percent reported not having any homework assigned, 26 percent had less than one hour of work and 23 percent had one to two hours of work. Eleven percent did not complete an assignment.

To better strike a balance between work and home life and find a concept that stays true to the district’s philosophies, the district’s committee has chosen to abide by Duke University’s lead researcher Harris Cooper’s “10-minute rule” for homework, which implies that daily assignments for homework should be allotted to 10 minutes per grade level, as in 10 minutes for a first grader or 60 minutes for a sixth grader. According to Education Next, this rule has been supported by the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association.

Cooper’s research found 90 minutes was ideal for middle school students and 90 minutes to up to two and a half hours maximum for high school students. Anything beyond these limits was thought not to benefit students.

Fuson said it also was important to instill equity and a structured environment in students’ households to support their academics and health.

“We can’t let that lack of ability (financial hardship in single-income households, etc.) to complete their work become a barrier or to have them held accountable to do their work outside of school time,” Fuson said. “We have secondary students who hold jobs themselves.”

Quintana, in her position with the district and as a parent, understands this position from both sides of the coin.

“In SPED (special education) law, we have to make sure we’re on top of it, how we can help (students),” she said. “If we’re not, it makes our job difficult. … It looks like we’re not doing our job, and I don’t like to be seen like that at all.”

When it came to her own children, Justyce, 17, Decarlo, 15, Clarissa, 13, and Victoria, 6, Quintana said it was “validating” to help them find success even if it took a little more time for some.

As a mother, particularly this past semester with COVID-19 and the move to digital learning, with her older kids, Quintana said teachers were receiving phone calls by the end of the day or in Zoom meetings with students to give help. That meant most teachers stayed until about 6 p.m. to check in and make sure students were on track with assignments.

“With my son’s teachers, he had a conversation with one of his teachers at least three times a week,” Quintana said. “With my oldest daughter, she didn’t have to check with them as much. She was getting her stuff done.”

But despite different circumstances between the siblings, Quintana said it was part of learning life skills for each as they’re growing and all the necessary “problem-solving” and “rising to the occasion” that comes with age.

“We acclimated,” she said. “You put the big-boy or big-girl pants on and you rise to the occasion and you do what’s asked of you. I haven’t had any personal issues with it, and I haven’t had any academic issues with it. In the educational environment, we’re all doing the best that we can, and we’re doing what the state is allowing us to do, and that’s all I can ask of my own children, and that’s it.”

Getting to authentic learning

The homework regulation itself, which also has been revised, once was stated merely so as to ensure a student’s competency in a subject matter and to be improved. Now it has been more fully detailed. It outlines responsibilities for teachers, administrators, students and parents or guardians.

Teachers have been advised to provide assignments that give purpose to a student’s mastery of concepts already presented in class and can be understood from home.

“You can’t make homework an end of everything,” Fuson said at the June 9 board meeting. “If a student doesn’t do their homework, they automatically failed the course because that’s just compliance, and we want to get away from compliance. We want to get to authentic learning, an authentic assessment of learning.”

The trustees asked whether assignments or projects are distributed on a daily or weekly basis evenhandedly so that students aren’t given just a few minutes’ worth of work one night and multiple hours the next.

Grading the homework itself also shouldn’t be marked for completeness, and while districts vary on how much it counts into the grade, Fuson said teacher groups sought clarification on expectations about whether the homework truly reflects true learning as opposed to being assessed on a pass/fail basis.

“What (homework) does is it help boosts those executive levels … Is it going to help their skills with organization and structure and then support those lifelong work habits? Absolutely,” Fuson told the board.

The board also expressed concerns about making sure students receive equitable grade checks and that teachers are willing to put in the time assessing what the students turn in the following day.

For Honors or Advanced Placement students, the expectations for which are appropriately higher as they brace for college work at the high school level, the burden of homework is exceedingly greater than it is for the typical student, Fuson said.

Dockery, who served as a principal at Bordewich Bray Elementary, said some students, particularly in GATE, begin taking advanced classes at the junior high level without the expectation of having homework in certain courses, but as they progress to high school, they transition to those advanced courses into challenges they’re often unprepared to take on at a major disadvantage.

“That social/emotional piece for kids, even though they’re gifted, they’re perfectionists and wanting to do everything right, and it can get really emotional for kids,” Dockery told the Appeal.

As a mother herself, Dockery said her own children were enrolled in AP classes in high school and enjoyed seeing them accept those challenges, but it meant extra responsibilities outside the normal school hours.

“I wanted them in those classes not because I wanted to get college credit but so they could experience the rigors of college and experience college work and the reading and all that goes into college-level work,” she said.

The school board, however, seemed concerned that even for advanced students, the hours required after school should be considered since demands at home still beckon.

“When we look at the economic crisis and the impact it’s having on families, there’s a lot of teenagers who will be working next year,” Walker said at the June 9 meeting. “People literally don’t have time to work six to 10 hours a night. We can have a policy, but the human side of it has to weigh in, also.”



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