By Deb Dawson, Special Writer
SOUTH BRUNSWICK — Homework was back on the table at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. After South Brunswick High School assistant principal April Gonzalez gave a presentation on where the current “dashboard” goal stood with regard to homework, parents criticized the board and administration for not being far enough along.
Parent Joyce Mehta again spoke for most of the assembled group of 20 or so parents.
After thanking Ms. Gonzalez for her presentation she angrily said, “We honestly never envisaged ourselves being before you a year later. … Our efforts began at last year’s site council meeting at the high school, our sample survey, our high school study, followed by a series of meetings with April Gonzalez, Susana Nikitchuk, many with Deven Patel and finally Dr. Jellig. It should be noted that not a single parent received any feedback, from anyone.”
She continued to say parents do not object to homework per se but to “excessive homework overload … above six hours a day … several hours at weekends … we mean homework leading to sleep deprivation, sleeping six hours or less every night and finally being too exhausted to eat, to concentrate at school, a lack of excitement, and energy, and leading to illness.”
She said some children spent their entire summer vacations doing homework.
“Some take up to four tests daily. This ends today. … Are we not all on the same page? Is this not our common goal?” She asked who could help if not the board.
Superintendent Gerard Jellig said, “I think we agree on all but one thing — about the complexity about how we should get there.” He said he started looking at stressors on students as soon as he arrived in the district. “I took a meeting with you … I said we’d look at homework next year and we did. … I understand you see that as more of an emergency and we’ll have to part company on that. … We are going to improve our homework vision. I hope you’ll stick with us.”
Board Vice President Daniel Boyle said, “I don’t want you to think as a board we’re not sympathetic to your concerns. Getting involved is in violation of the law. We can adopt a policy. We have empathy for your situation.” Later he said Dr. Jellig could recommend “best practices.”
Board President Stephen Parker said, “All we can say is policy. … We supported this goal when the goals came out. It’s an important one. If you feel the amount of homework your child has is impacting your child’s health then he has to not do so much homework. Parents sometimes have to be proactive.”
During Ms. Gonzalez’s presentation on homework she said a survey would be done in December. A book, “Rethinking Homework” by Cathy Vatterott, and current articles would be read. What other schools and colleges are doing would be considered. And, the Mental Health and Wellness Committee would be consulted.
Parent Swarna Mutwakrishnan asked, “What are we going to do about it? … If Dr. Jellig will not interfere with the teachers in the classroom, why are we doing the study in the first place?… Are there interim plans? Are there interim actions?… Have students openly spoken about it (stress)?”
Dr. Jellig responded, “To be clear, what April shared is a sampling. In the spring we expect to meet some conclusions. Dashboard represents what additional work we do beyond our normal work. … These are things we’ve asked them to do beyond their day job. I think they’re making remarkable speed. … How students are choosing to spend their time isn’t part of the conversation. … Because one can handle the content of AP Physics does not mean someone should be in AP Physics.”
Parent Marianne Jones stated, “If you offer the courses they’re going to take them. … I think we have the responsibility to look at the curriculum and take that choice away from them.”
The superintendent responded, “I can only tell you that it will be considered. Our community on balance is looking for a more rigorous experience. … And yet, somewhat bravely, we chose to make homework somewhat less rigorous, a goal. … I’m in concert with you on that but I serve 13,000 parents.”
Also at the meeting, the board was presented the annual report on violence and vandalism and the bi-annual harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB).
There were 14 instances of substance abuse last school year as opposed to 18 in 2013-14. The substances were marijuana and alcohol. There were four instances of weapons versus six; five episodes of vandalism versus six; and, 41 incidents of violence versus 29.
Amanda Rosenberg, who presented the report, said the actual number of violent incidents are not greater than the preceding year because an incident report is generated for each student involved and in some instances multiple students were involved.
The HIB report covered January through June 2015. There were 16 episodes of harassment, intimidation or bullying — nine in the elementary schools, two in the middle schools and five in the high school. Three incidents related to race or religion; one to mental or physical disability; three to national origin; three to gender identity; one to sexual orientation; and five to “other distinguishing,” which Amy Finkelstein, anti-bullying coordinator, said were elementary students calling each other “fat.”
By Deb Dawson, Special Writer