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A Homework Free School

For many high school seniors, October is crunchtime as they juggle rigorous classes with a wave of college application deadlines. It can be tough to finish admissions essays and scholarship forms when there’s Shakespeare to read and calculus problems due.

Enter the homework-free weekend.

Some students in the Washington region are getting a breather from homework for at least a couple of nights this fall as schools look to relieve stress.

At Watkins Mill High in Maryland’s Montgomery County, the break came last weekend. At Poolesville High, also in Montgomery, it’s this weekend.

“Everyone I know is trying to find any smidgen of time to work on college applications,” said Kelly Simonson, 17, a Poolesville High senior who is taking six Advanced Placement classes and facing four deadlines in coming days.

Nov. 1 is the priority deadline for applying to the University of Maryland at College Park, the state’s flagship. It’s also the early-action deadline for the University of Virginia, James Madison University, Georgetown University, Howard University, Catholic University and other schools.

Students around the region are scrambling to meet admission requirements as they also devote time to sports, extracurricular activities, internships and jobs.

Those benefiting from a homework hiatus say it eases the load.

“It’s like a pause button,” said Sarah Elbeshbishi, 17, a senior at Watkins Mill High who takes International Baccalaureate classes and is class president and editor in chief of the school newspaper. “It just gives us a little more time.”

Nationally, dozens of schools have created occasional homework-free weekends as students take more advanced and honors classes and have become increasingly over-scheduled with other activities, said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who has worked with schools across the country on such efforts as part of a nonprofit called Challenge Success.

“It makes a big difference,” she said. “These kids never have a weekend where they don’t have work, and all of the sudden you’re giving them Friday and Saturday and Sunday.”

Pope said the strategy is popular because it’s relatively easy, delivering “a lot of bang for its buck.” She urged it be part of a broader evaluation of whether the homework being assigned is meaningful and furthers student learning.

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While some in the high-performing Montgomery County district have pointed to the limitations of such weekends — saying homework may simply get steered to other days or students doing longer projects might not feel relief — several principals said they have found it helpful and kept it going for years.

Wootton High School in Rockville, which gave its students a homework-free weekend in September, offered sessions to help seniors with their college essays and provide information about the federal financial aid application. The concept goes back to 2008.

“It’s become a real tradition that we have this weekend designated for them to work on their applications,” said Kimberly Boldon, Wootton’s principal.

At Watkins Mill, in Gaithersburg, Principal Carol Goddard emailed school families earlier this month to urge students to use Oct. 13 to 15 for SAT and ACT test preparation, college applications, essay writing and community service. Goddard said seniors, in particular, need the timeout.

“They’re exhausted and frustrated, and you name it,” she said. “It’s kind of a reprieve, if you will.”

Kate Heald, coordinator of the school’s college and career center, said it’s about freeing up time for the college process but it goes beyond that. “It gives them time to catch up and maybe even relax and recharge, which is just as important,” she said.

At Poolesville High, the weekend homework break — twice a year, in fall and spring — started six or seven years ago in response to student concerns about workload and balance, Principal Deena Levine said.

Some students focus on college tasks, while others make up missed assignments or spend more time with their families, she said. “It’s been very positive,” she said. “Parents even put it on their calendar.”

Pete Barry, 17, a Poolesville senior and captain of the lacrosse and basketball teams, said the break is helpful, as is the time to focus on college tasks. Two schools on his list have deadlines nearing — U-Md. and Clemson University — and he intended to spend part of his no-homework weekend reviewing and trimming his essay. “That’s definitely the plan,” he said.

Some students said they are glad for such weekends but note it’s an imperfect approach because not all work gets put aside. Project due dates or tests may fall during the week following the homework-free weekend — so students don’t feel off the hook.

“It does lessen the load,” said Simonson, the Poolesville High senior. “I really like homework-free weekends. I just don’t consider them entirely free.”

It’s unclear how many schools in the region set homework-free weekends. Several area school officials said they had not heard of the idea.

In Virginia’s Fairfax County, schools have embraced a request to refrain from assigning homework on Thanksgiving, winter and spring breaks so students can de-stress and enjoy time with family and friends, a spokesman said.

In Montgomery County, not all schools that have experimented with the weekend break have continued it.

Alan Goodwin, principal of Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, said his school tried the idea about 12 years ago and found it better in theory than in practice.

Teachers still had a certain amount of material to get in, he said, so they ended up giving more homework during the week, rather than on the weekend. At the same time, he said, it was not clear seniors made a concerted push to apply for colleges during the allotted time.

“It created its own stress,” Goodwin said.

At Watkins Mill, Victoria Joya Euceda, 17, welcomed the extra time. The first in her family to apply to college, she said she has been buried in scholarship applications for weeks. On top of that, she has a Saturday internship, plays field hockey and is making her way through Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

Four of the 11 colleges on her list have Nov. 1 application deadlines — making the last weeks of October a squeeze. On her school’s recent homework-free weekend, she completed an application to the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Having no homework is “a blessing, for sure,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for everyone to catch up so they can have a brighter future.”

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. - Guess what, kids? No homework. Really. All year.

A small but growing number of elementary schools and individual teachers are doing away with the after-school chore to allow kids more time to play, participate in activities, spend time with families, read and sleep.

Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Texas, recently shot to national attention by sending a note home with parents saying as much.

“[Students] work hard all day. When they go home they have other things they need to learn there,” Young told CBS News. “I’m trying to develop their whole person; it’s not beneficial to go home and do pencil and paper work.”

There’s been pushback against homework from parents in recent years who say their children’s time is monopolized by other activities, said Steven Geis, president of the National Elementary School Principals’ Association.

At North Trail Elementary School, in Farmington, Minnesota, where he is principal, students do what he says is engaging homework.

Some schools and individual teachers are revising their homework policies to ensure that they are effective, he said.

At the Orchard School, a kindergarten-through-5th grade school in South Burlington, Vermont, the principal there said he’s seen more anxiety among students in the last decade. The school opted to do away with homework this school year, based in part on the book “The Homework Myth.”

“They’re just kids. They’re pretty young and they just put in a full day’s shift at work and so we just don’t believe in adding more to their day. We also feel that we are squashing their other passions and interest in learning,” Principal Mark Trifilio said.

Alfie Kohn, the outspoken education lecturer and author of the book, “The Homework Myth,” says homework is a case of all pain and no gain.

“The disadvantages of homework are clear to everyone: exhaustion, frustration, loss of time to pursue other interests and often diminution of interest in learning,” he said. “Homework may be the greatest extinguisher of curiosity ever invented.”

But Harris Cooper, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University, who has been studying the effects of homework for 30 years, disagrees.

He thinks all school children should be doing homework, but the amount and type should vary depending on age and developmental levels.

Cooper led research that reviewed more than 60 studies on homework between 1987 and 2003 and found that homework had a positive effect on student achievement, but the positive correlation was much stronger for students in grades 7-12 than for those in elementary school.

He prescribes homework assignments that are short, simple and lead to success for elementary school kids, he said.

It teaches kids that they don’t just learn in the classroom and helps turn them into lifelong learners while improving their sense of independence, and time management and study skills, Cooper said.

“Homework is like medicine. If you take too little, it does nothing. If you take too much, it can kill you,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to get the dose right, and if you do, it can do wonders.”

A lot of the backlash is a reaction to some teachers assigning too much homework, he said.

A guideline for many schools is 10 minutes of homework per grade: so 10 minutes in 1st grade, 20 minutes in 2nd grade and so on.

“We definitely don’t say ‘no homework’ but we try to keep it reasonable,” said Cherie Stobie, principal at the K-8 Marion school in Marion, Montana.

“The main benefit is just having the additional time to practice later in the day because research shows that if students practice, you know they take a break after they’ve learned something and they practice it again later, it’s more likely to be retained,” she said.

Noelle M. Ellerson, of AASA: The School Superintendents Association, said there has been a small but growing number of schools or teachers revising homework policies or talking about it “whether it’s to do away with it or to shift to a policy where homework is the classwork they didn’t finish during the day or where the homework of the child is to read with their parents.”

At the Orchard School, the children’s daily home assignment now is to read books, get outside and play, eat dinner with family - including helping with setting and cleaning up - and get a good night’s sleep.

“It’s awesome,” 9-year-old Avery Cutroni said of the no-homework policy. She had dance and piano lessons after school recently, so said she had a busy schedule. Plus, she’s reading more on her own, her mother said.

“I think it gives kids a lot time for mental and physical rest which I think is super important,” said Heidi Cutroni, of the school’s elimination of homework. “I think it’s really good for parent-teacher-student relations in all directions and I think it just gives kids a chance to use their time for what their passionate and excited about.”