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School Reverses Tradition of Homework-free Night, Test-free Day - 2002-01-16

Pressure to improve student achievement in American school classrooms has teachers and administrators scrambling to find ways to make every classroom minute count. One school district in the Midwest has ended part of its revered "Family Night" policy, which limited homework assignments so students could participate in evening church activities. For some, the change pits education against God. But others see it as a reasonable response to changing times.

The Family Night policy in Omaha's Millard Public School District began more than a quarter century ago. Back then, Wednesday night was commonly called Church Night in Nebraska, and it's still youth choir night at Faith Westwood United Methodist Church in Omaha, which lies in the heart of the 130-year-old Millard district. Before the policy change, these high school students and others in the area with Wednesday night church activities, worried little about studying for tests or doing much homework for the next day. That's because they enjoyed the full protection of Family Night, which mandated minimal homework assigned on Wednesdays, and prohibited any exams on Thursdays.

That nearly 27-year-old Thursday test ban disappeared in January.

To many students who enjoy Wednesday night fellowship, as well as to pastors, the test ban was a big factor in getting the students to spend time in church. Rev. Douglas Delp is disappointed by the change in the Family Night policy.

"I've been a pastor for over 20 years and so I've fought these kind of battles and generally I think the kids are the ones who come out on the short end of it," said Rev. Delp.

But Millard School Superintendent Keith Lutz said a lot of thought went into the change, including a decision requiring teachers to give at least two days notice before giving tests on Thursdays. And he bristles when some of his critics claim the change pits schools against God.

"We don't feel that way at all," said Mr. Lutz. "What we're doing is we feel we have, by far, one of the strongest policies in the metro area, if not the region, protecting family night. He described the policy change as a "tweak to it to make it work for everybody."

And everybody seemed to have an opinion either for or against the change. That's because U.S. school districts are local with a lot of community involvement, and there's competition among districts for the highest student achievement and test scores.

It's teachers who are expected to produce that student achievement. Cece Schuennsen and her fellow instructors at one of the three Millard high schools felt additional pressure. Millard South High recently adopted a so-called block schedule of intense instruction. Students see their teachers only every other day - on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one week, Tuesday and Thursday the next week - and each class is 90 minutes long. Ms. Schuennsen says banning testing on Thursdays meant nearly a week would pass before students could be quizzed on what they learned on Tuesday.

"They're formative kinds of tests, checking student knowledge to see where they are, so that we can then make changes in our instruction and see what students need in order to really learn the concepts," she said.

At a public hearing before the change was made, the president of the local teacher's union, said the test ban is at odds with a school district mandate. "Our mission in our school district is to educate students," said Stephanie Harlan-Skrupa. "In fact, it is to ensure that we educate students. If there is a policy, procedure or anything in place that keeps us from meeting the mission of our district, it should be examined and changed."

Millard high school students differ on how the change in policy will affect them. Many agree with senior (12th grade student) Ashley Boldt, who says putting off a test until the following Monday did not work.

"I am an avid church-goer, I guess you could say, and I am for church activities and Family Night, but I just don't think it should be used as an excuse to not be able to have tests because I think it's a bigger hassle trying to push it off and learning different material while still on old material and trying to just balance everything," she said."

On the other side, senior Ashley Reid worries the change will make it even harder for her to attend Wednesday night church. "I've had to not go to church, which I don't really like doing, but I have to pass in order to graduate."

The issue of Wednesday itself also was a factor in the change. As the Millard school district has grown and other churches have sprouted up, youth activity nights have begun to change to Sundays, Tuesdays or Thursdays.

And there are other religions to consider, too. A Jewish parent, Jean Goldfein, told the school board her children go to temple activities on Tuesday nights. "This creates an unequal situation for my children in that my children have to deal with more homework on the night that they have religion education and they know that they must be prepared for tests on the day after," said Ms. Goldfein.

That inequity is no longer an issue now that any day can be a test day in the Millard school district.