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Finding time for all the many parts of a school day

CORNWALL — How much homework is appropriate, how much time is needed for lunch, and when is the number of students in a classroom too small?These are all issues with which the Board of Education is grappling.Classes with as few as seven or eight students become a problem for socialization, Principal Michael Croft told board members at the Feb. 21 meeting. With overall enrollment expected to continue to drop, Croft termed it the biggest current need at Cornwall Consolidated School.“A group that small doesn’t have the amount of social options we would want our students to have. They are looking to make friends; and when there is so little diversity of personalities, it limits the quality of our students’ experience.”It colors every aspect of the school day. Croft said it can be an issue when it comes to academic pairings. Students assigned to work on a project together generally stay with their own gender. “Gender really matters. It is difficult when the numbers don’t match, or they have so few options of someone else to work with.”The problem becomes particularly evident in physical education classes. “You’ll always have a disparity of ability among the students. When there are only seven of them, the students who are not very athletic really stand out.”Part of the solution under consideration is to combine two grades for gym classes next year. Cross-grade curriculum is a potential solution proven in other small schools. Grades are not combined. Rather, students from two or more grades form classes for subjects that don’t require prerequisites. It can work well for instance, in social studies.“I’ve asked the faculty to identify problems and work with me on a solution. This demands that people be flexible. It demands creativity from the adults,” Croft said.As for lunch and homework, both are subjects brought up by board member Tom Levine, who was passing along concerns from parents. They say their children don’t have enough time to eat. Levine wondered if it was really a matter of students focusing more on socializing than eating. He also raised concerns of food waste and a resulting lack of good nutrition.Croft encouraged parents to speak with him directly, so he can get a better handle on the issues. He has observed a lack of efficiency and focus by the students when it comes to eating lunch. He suggested the board’s Wellness Committee, which has not yet met this school year, take a look at the matter.As for possibly extending the lunch period, Croft said he is working on “honest” scheduling. “Recess used to end the exact second lunch began,” he said. “No time was allowed for passing. We changed that so in practice, lunch is now a few minutes longer. The same goes for passing time between classes. Next year, that will change, too.”Board member and parent Irene Hurlburt suggested parents come to school to see exactly what is going on with their child at lunchtime.Parents are also looking for information about homework expectations, and again, Croft encouraged direct communication. Is there a standard set, and how is the disparity in the amount of time the same homework takes by various students handled?Croft said the student handbook states it should be 10 minutes per night for kindergartners and first-graders. The prescribed time increases by 10 minutes per grade, to 80 minutes for eighth-graders. For kindergartners, the goal is to learn responsibility for bringing home and returning a completed assignment.The handbook also states that teachers will strive to meet a balance between the following types of assignments.• Practice, to help students master specific skills and to reinforce material presented in class. • Preparation, given to prepare students for upcoming lessons. • Extension, given to decide if students can transfer new skills and ideas to new situations. Extension assignments require abstract thinking skills.“In reality, the time guidelines become a maximum, not a minimum,” Croft said. “Parents are encouraged to sign off on a homework assignment if limits need to be set, such as if it extends past bedtime. A student who is really struggling with an assignment should be able to talk with the teacher about it the next day. My rule is, basically, stop before bedtime or tears.”

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