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HOMEWORK OVERLOAD PENCILS, PAPERS AND ERASERS ARE FLYING, LATE INTO THE NIGHT

Barely three weeks into the school year, she found herself at the kitchen table frustratedly penciling in -- and then erasing -- one answer after another until the math paper was rubbed soft with wear.
Finally, at 11 p.m., she was sent to bed.
By her husband. Who also couldn't figure out their second-grader's homework.

"It was ridiculous," fumes the South Towns mother, who is still trying to resolve what she feels is a homework-overload issue with their child's teacher. "He's 7 years old. He went to bed in tears, he was so scared to fall behind."

Nancy Hyzy, mother of three and head of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association at Casey Middle School in Amherst, also has seen homework elicit tears of rage.

"When they're overloading, they cry a lot," she says of her children, who are in fourth, sixth and ninth grade. "It adds up, and they can't sleep. It's a lot of pressure at a very young age."

Educators wince to hear this.

Some because the parents got involved -- "The onus should be on the child, not the parent, to do the work," explains Michael Sheldon, principal of the grades K-3 Fletcher Elementary School in Tonawanda. "There should rarely, if ever, be a 'We couldn't get her homework done' situation."

Still other educators cringe because they fear overwork of the student -- "We don't want to wear the children out," says Noreen Nirschel, a science teacher at Christ the King School in Snyder for 12 years. "We simply want to reinforce what has been learned during the day."

But each fall, as homework sheets start piling up like leaves in the yard, parents, students and educators can find themselves waging a familiar war.

How much homework is too much?

Is it fair for a teacher to try to enforce family togetherness by assigning at-home projects that clearly need adult input?

When should parents step in?

And who has the final say when everyone disagrees?

"I was just told: 'These are mandates. This is what the state tells us we have to do,' " says the mother whose second-grade child's homework issue remains unresolved.

But really, New York State has nothing to say about homework.

"Homework is legal, but it is not required," says Charles McCarthy, a senior certification officer with the state Education Department.

"In fact, there is nothing about it in the commissioner's regulations. What does exist are guidelines about subject areas which must be mastered by the student," he continues.

"If the student can do this without homework, then that is the business of the teacher and the principal. But mastering is necessary. That is the only 'state mandate' that exists."

However, no one, including McCarthy, denies that homework provably helps mastering.

A recent University of Michigan study of grade-school kids in three countries found that math scores directly correlated with how much time was spent on homework.

An equally recent Stanford University research paper concluded that immigrant Asian-American students in San Francisco got consistently better grades because they simply did homework night after night, year after year.

And so goes the battle.

Teachers wish parents and students understood the importance of routine after-school study.

"Getting them used to the concept that life is not a 9-to-3:30 situation, and that as students they have a responsibility to studies outside the building, is key," says Sheldon. "It's their responsibility, not Mom's or Dad's."

Observes Robert LeFauve, a 14-year teacher of history at Amherst Senior High School:

"I see a growing number of students who won't do homework,
who gladly accept an 'F' and feel no stigma attached to that."

And on the flip side, parents wish teachers understood (or remembered) how hard the nightly homework ritual is to achieve in the '90s.

"Boy, do I hear that," says Mrs. Hyzy. "I hear a lot of, 'There's no time for them to just be kids anymore,' and it's true. These teachers really are compelled to give the students so much to do."

So much so that it can eclipse plain old family time -- as crucial to child development as learning the alphabet.

"By the time she comes home, eats dinner, does her papers and has a bath, it's bedtime," sighs a Depew single mother. "If I want to be with her to read, or watch a nature show on (the) Discovery (cable channel), I have to keep her up late, which is just a huge sin nowadays."

"They are just getting hammered with (assignments)," adds Jim Bailey, an Office Max manager and the father of seventh- and ninth-grade boys in the Eden Central Schools. "We make sure it's done, and that the boys realize their job is to master their curriculum. But still it gets very intense, especially when they have more than one project due."

Between the kids' sports and activities and their parents' jobs, the family eats together "maybe twice a week," and though they try to fix a set homework time, it eludes them often.

Sheldon does understand all of this, he insists.

"Given the pressures in society, we do know that family problems can take precedence now and then," the divorced father says feelingly, recalling his daughters' struggles, years ago, to find meaning in high school homework.

If the family needs time off to go away, or simply a night's break from the pressures, it's "officially frowned upon, but really understood," he adds.

"Let them be a family. Let them be kids for a while. Don't take that away from them. Just make sure they understand that homework is a must-do."

"They" meaning students, parents -- and teachers, who can get as sick of, and burned out on, grading homework as students can get doing it.

But giving up homework entirely is a bad idea, required or not.

"If you're teaching high school Regents physics, can the students get away with no homework? If you're teaching Thomas Edison, sure," deadpans McCarthy.

"But most students are not Thomas Edison."

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