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For K-5 kids in Long Beach schools, an end to homework looms

Melissa Catalano, of Long Beach, offered qualified support

Melissa Catalano, of Long Beach, offered qualified support for the no-homework plan. "I've seen children who've had to do an hour-and-a-half in elementary school, and it makes them feel defeated about their education," she said. Her son, Jack, 9, said without homework he will spend more time "playing outside during the nice days." Credit: Keshia Clukey

Long Beach elementary schools in the fall will eliminate “traditional” homework — such as workbooks and repetitive drills in math and spelling — and instead encourage children to read at home, under a new policy that is drawing mixed reactions locally and across Long Island.

In a note posted on the district website Thursday and also sent home to parents, Superintendent Jennifer Gallagher cited research showing that homework at the lower grade levels doesn’t help much. So, she issued the order that “beginning in September we will be eliminating ‘traditional’ elementary homework. Instead we are asking every child and every family to WraP every night: WONDER, READ and PLAY.”

Gallagher, 54, an instructional expert of long experience who is in her first year as superintendent, said research shows homework does have a positive effect on achievement in middle school and high school but not at the elementary grade level.

The district has four elementary schools and more than 1,500 K-5 students, according to its school report card.

“What DOES help elementary students is to read at home, but many students are sacrificing reading time because they’re too tired by the time they finish their homework,” she said in the note. “In addition, we have heard the call of parents to give students more time for another key aspect of child development, PLAY.”

Regional school leaders across Long Island said Thursday that they knew of no other district in the area that has taken the exact same approach as Long Beach. However, a growing number of systems in other parts of the country are either cutting back or eliminating homework at the elementary grades.

Long Beach’s new policy — the product of two years’ planning — drew a mixed response from local residents, as well as from educators in other communities.

“I am beyond happy,” said Janice Donaghy, 39, who has four children attending Long Beach schools, and served on a district curriculum committee that helped plan the new homework policy. “Our children need time to play, to read.”

Donaghy teaches elementary-age children in another district.

Alexis Pace, also of Long Beach, has a masters degree in special education, and she considers the switch in homework policy a “huge mistake.”

Pace has three children, one of whom is a fourth-grader at East Elementary and will be affected by the decision. Pace said that developing good work habits “happens organically through the years of learning how to study and how to prepare, and I feel that’s what homework does for you.”

In addition to the no-homework policy, the district will be adding short “brain breaks” in every elementary school classroom in the fall to give students the opportunity to move around and play.

The district will create a video to introduce the concept to the affected students and Gallagher asked parents to discuss the change with their children and encourage reading at home. “We want the priority to be reading” and not spending more time on video games or watching television, she said.

The schools chief cited research done by John Hattie, a researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia, who looked at hundreds of studies and concluded that homework had close to a zero effect on student performance in the primary grades, but a much more significant effect in high school.

Some educators remain skeptical.

Robert Gerver, the author of 25 math textbooks and a longtime teacher in the North Shore district, thinks that homework gets a bad rap. Young students tend to exhaust themselves with a constant round of club meetings, sports, musical rehearsals and the like, but that the blame tends to fall on homework alone, he said.

Gerver, now retired, continues to lecture on educational subjects and to defend the role of homework in the early grades as well as later on.

“Homework is a rehearsal — it’s to see if you can fend for yourself,” he said. “It blows my mind that people will willingly send their kids to 12 hours a week of sports practice, and then take umbrage that they’ve got to spend 15 minutes making sure they can divide fractions correctly on their own.”

Some school districts across the Island have encouraged similar changes in recent years, in efforts to focus on educating the whole child and a shift from increasing attention on increased academic classwork.

In 2016, the Patchogue-Medford school district doubled daily recess time to 40 minutes for all students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

With Keshia Clukey

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