By NICOLE HIGGINS DE SMET
The Burlington Free Press
SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) – Five months after a no-homework policy went into effect, Orchard Elementary parents report that after-school reading is flourishing.
“We have a first grader, and at her age it’s as much a chore for the parents as the kids,” parent Rani Philip said about homework. “Instead we’ve been spending time reading. We don’t have to rush.”
Philip said her husband was skeptical, but now he’s convinced. Other parents who were surprised by the policy said their children are reading more.
“My son declared on Monday that he can read now and that he doesn’t need any help. So, something is working,” James Conway said of his kindergartner, Sean.
No institutional bells signaled student freedom; instead a voice on a loudspeaker calmly announced the end of the day. The merry horde of puffy-coated youngsters streamed past teachers into the arms of parents.
Sean hid behind his dad’s legs but managed to share that his solo literary conquest was the book “Spirit Animals.”
Teachers at Orchard voted unanimously before the start of the school year to end homework for their kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Instead students are encouraged to read, play games and be kids.
Orchard Principal Mark Trifilio sent a homework policy survey to parents in November. Of those parents, 254 sent back answers. About 80 percent indicated they agree with the policy.
Parents reported in the survey concern that their fifth-graders might miss skills that will help them succeed in middle school.
Trifilio said he’s working on ideas to address concerns. One thing he’s considering is adding more tasks that take long-term planning like transferable skills.
According to the state, transferable skills are multi-step tasks like writing assignments, science experiments and presentations.
Lolly Bliss, a fifth-grade teacher with 25 years’ experience, said her students will be prepared to accomplish more because they are freed from busywork – which is how she defined some homework.
She has more time to accomplish academic goals in class because she doesn’t have to spend time on kids’ and parents’ anxieties about missing or incomplete homework.
“We get a lot done in a calm class,” Bliss said.
“And they are actually getting more math now,” Bliss said in defense of the no-homework policy. The fifth-graders get two non-consecutive hours of math class during the school day.
But at least one parent thought the policy was too extreme and removed her daughter from the school.
Tara Chitko, the mother of a third-grader, said in a phone interview that she enrolled her daughter in private school where she now has 30 minutes of homework per night.
“We were disappointed that we were not consulted or informed before the decision was enacted,” Chitko said regarding the school’s policy.
“My kids would be thrilled if I let them eat brownies every day. But as a parent, I can’t let them,” Chitko said. She added that her daughter’s Orchard teacher was great. Her criticism was reserved for Trifilio.
Some parents on Friday still had questions about the policy, but there wasn’t a negative word to be found in the hallway as parents waited on benches for their children to bust through the double doors.?
“It’s a concern about getting prepared,” Tom Sweeny, a parent, said confirming Trifilio’s survey results. “I think the hope is there may be in fifth-grade some additional work that will be required.”
Kathy Lamphier, a math coach and parent of a third-grader, said teachers at Orchard are incorporating homework-style practice skills in their classrooms.
Lamphier sees math homework as potentially inhibiting student learning, especially in kindergarten through second-grade. Students are now introduced to math concepts through tactile understanding and pictures, rather than memorizing formulas, Lamphier said, describing teaching styles that complement national teaching standards.
South Burlington students will receive their assessments, what used to be report cards, this week. Future district plans regarding homework are under discussion.
No decisions have been made regarding reducing or ending homework at other South Burlington elementary schools.