Some high schools have homework-free weekends

Several high schools in Maryland have scheduled homework-free weekends  this fall. The Washington Post reports that no homework was assigned this weekend at Poolesville High School in Montgomery County. Last weekend Watkins Mill High School, also in Montgomery County, had a homework free weekend.

“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,” Donna St. George reports. “The concept goes back to 2008.”

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.

In response to the Post article, one comment from “webg” was, “This year MCPS reduced the school year from 40 weeks to 39 weeks but didn’t reduce the amount of work. The number of hours in school might be the same, but the amount of time left for doing homework and other tasks is reduced by a week.”

“ThinkTwiceWriteOnce” commented, “Homework is highly overrated, just ask Finland and note their academic outcomes. There IS a better way.”

Karen Keys-Gamarra for School Board

I will vote for Karen Keys-Gamarra in today’s special election for the Fairfax County School Board at-large seat. At a candidate’s forum on August 23, Chris Grisafe, the Republican endorsed candidate, said he supported zero-based budgeting for the school system. Keys-Gamarra, who is endorsed by the Democrats, correctly objected that zero-based budgeting would be a bureaucratic nightmare. Gamarra is also endorsed by The Washington Post, the Fairfax Education Association, and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

Grisafe presented an inconsistent position on the renaming of J.E.B. Stuart High School. On the one hand, he said that the community has a right to be heard on this issue; on the other hand he objected to the length of time it took to involve the community in the decision.

Independent candidate Michael Owens made some good points at the candidate’s forum. “Recess is a right, not a privilege,” she said, noting that it should never be withheld from students as a punishment. She is one of two independent candidates quixotically attempting to win an at-large seat without endorsement by either the Republicans or Democrats.

From my experience in the 1995 school board election, I know that school board elections in Fairfax County are nonpartisan in name only. It would be difficult to win a district seat as an independent, and probably impossible to win an at-large seat. What can be done to improve the selection process for school board members? I will cover this vital question in future posts.

Virginia Beach considers later school start times

An editorial in the Virginia Pilot reports that the Virginia Beach school division is trying to determine the best time to begin the school day in hopes of helping students, teachers and parents. “There are many reasons to evaluate the appropriate start times, and the impact on adolescents is just one of many factors.”

What’s impressive is how Virginia Beach is going about the process of determining what, if any, changes would be best. The division’s requests for feedback from students, parents and staff have resulted in nearly 30,000 responses, including more than 20,000 from students and nearly 8,000 from parents.

Those responses give school leaders a lot of good information to consider as they evaluate what would work best. Any changes they make wouldn’t occur before at least the 2018-19 school year.

The Virginia Pilot concludes:

Along with all the important logistical issues involved in determining schedules, it’s important to consider the research about when students are at their peak for learning. It’s not about letting adolescents sleep later; it’s about getting the best performance in the classroom.

New York City to provide all schools with a designated PE space by 2021

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Assembly Member Cathy Nolan and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña recently announced a Universal Physical Education (PE) initiative to provide all schools with a designated PE space by 2021. The initiative, introduced on June 5,  will focus on around 200 schools, out of a total of 1,629, that do not currently have a gymnasium. The first phase will focus on 76 schools that do not have any designated PE space and will cost approximately $385 million over the next four years in Capital funding, including $105.5 million in new Capital funding as part of the recently-announced Adopted Budget for Fiscal Year 2018. As part of the budget agreement, the City will also invest an additional $1.8 million for some of the schools to lease nearby PE space.

Over the next several months, the DOE and the School Construction Authority (SCA) will work with individual schools to explore a variety of options at each school to ensure all students have access to space for PE. These options will include constructing new gymnasiums, renovating schoolyards, converting or enhancing existing rooms into fitness areas, converting auditoriums into “gymatoriums”, or leasing PE space from community-based organizations.

Of the 76 schools across the City that do not currently have any designated PE space, the SCA has already identified 20 that have outdoor space that can accommodate a new gym addition, a standalone gym or a schoolyard renovation. DOE and the SCA are in the process of conducting space assessments at the remaining 56 schools.

California Senate supports later school start times

On May 31, the California Senate passed a bill to prevent all state middle and high schools from starting earlier than 8:30 a.m.  The bill now goes to the Assembly. If approved, the measure would not be implemented until 2020. CBS Sacramento reports that, “Critics, including the California Teachers Association, say local districts, not the state should set their own hours.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune supports the bill, saying that Senate approval of later school times a start for California:

The American Academy of Pediatrics and a long list of sleep experts say starting school days early takes a harsh toll on teens. “The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” pediatrician Judith Owens wrote in 2014. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”

New Mexico law directs schools not to embarrass children when parents have not paid for their lunches

“In what its supporters say is the first such legislation in the country, New Mexico has outlawed shaming children whose parents are behind on school lunch payments,” the New York Times reports.

On Thursday, Gov. Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance and puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children. It applies to public, private and religious schools that receive federal subsidies for students’ breakfasts and lunches.

The law’s passage is a victory for anti-hunger activists, who have long been critical of lunch-shaming practices that single out children with insufficient funds on their electronic swipe cards or who lack the necessary cash. These practices can include making the child wear a wrist band or requiring the child to perform chores in exchange for a meal.

In some cases, cafeteria workers have been ordered to throw away the hot lunches of children who owed money, giving them alternatives like sandwiches, milk and fruit.

This issue was also covered on the Today Show: ‘School lunch shaming’ is now against the law in New Mexico.

The search for usable advice from nutrition science

Two new books on nutrition, The Secret Life of Fat, by Sylvia Tara, and The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes are reviewed in a recent New Yorker:  Is Fat Killing You, or Is Sugar?  “Both present a range of cutting-edge dietary research, both say that fat is unfairly maligned, and both inadvertently end up revealing that the science behind their claims is complex and its findings hard to translate into usable advice,” Jerome Groopman says.

Tara’s book provides useful information on the biology of fat. White fat stores energy. Brown fat burns energy for body heat. Groopman reports:

A third type, beige fat, was identified some five years ago; during exercise, it receives messages from our muscles to morph into brown fat. Moreover, fat should not be characterized simply as inert blubber. It is the vehicles by which our cells receive certain essential nutrients, like Vitamins A, D,. E., and K. The myelin sheaths around our nerves are eighty per cent lipids, “which means fat is actually required to think,” Tara writes. Studies by Jeffrey Friedman, at the Rockefeller University, have shown that the hormone leptin travels from fat cells to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain which is involved in regulating appetite. ‘Friedman’s discovery redefined fat,” Tara writes. “It was a verifiable endocrine organ with wide influence to our bodies. Through leptin, fat could talk. It could tell the brain to stop eating.”

However, Groopman concludes that Tara’s speculation that viruses may cause obesity relies on research that is obscure and unconvincing.

In The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes argues that dietary sugar is the cause of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other illnesses. Groopman says:

Ultimately, Taubes’s indictment of sugar as the leading culprit in virtually all modern Western maladies doesn’t provide enough evidence for us to convict. That doesn’t mean sugar is without dangers: it certainly plays a role in the development of obesity, to say nothing of dental cavities. But these are lesser charges, and they make for a less dramatic headline.

Maryland school calendars updated

The Washington Post reports on the school calendar changes in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County:

Montgomery County school officials reset the final day of classes for next school year and shortened two teacher workdays as part of a new plan to meet Gov. Larry Hogan’s order that Maryland schools extend their summer recess through Labor Day.

The county’s school board voted unanimously this week to revise the system’s 2017-2018 academic calendar so that classes, which will start Sept. 5, will end June 12 unless severe weather forces school closings during the year.

“Chris Lloyd, president of the county teachers’ union, estimated that educators will lose about eight hours of grading and planning time during the instructional year,” the Post reported.

Prince George’s County officials announced their plans for next year on Tuesday: School will start Sept. 6 and end June 13. But makeup days for snow and other inclement weather could potentially extend the school year to June 14 or 15, shift the Presidents’ Day holiday on Feb. 19 to a school day or, as a last resort, shorten spring break by as much as two days.

Parents ask for more time for recess and physical education

Recess supporters pack school board meeting. The Prince William Times reports that about 50 parents and their children demonstrated their support of more time for recess and physical education at a Prince William County School Board meeting held January 18.

Block scheduling proposal is controversial in Arlington school

Jay Matthews reports that parents are questioning a proposed change to block scheduling at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington.

I began writing about block scheduling 20 years ago, when the idea was quickly adopted by most Washington-area high schools. Policymakers felt that teachers could be more thoughtful and creative in much longer periods. Research since has shown no significant differences in achievement rates between students using traditional and block schedules. I asked Arlington officials for studies that support the reform but got none.

Middle schools have been less eager than high schools to adopt block schedules. They are still dealing with basics, where repetition has value. Williamsburg is a great school that might make it work, but not without additional discussion and clarity about the level of support.