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Olivia Boyd, an incoming junior at Needham High, worked Friday at Nobles Day Camp. Boyd fits summer reading into her busy vacation schedule.
Olivia Boyd, an incoming junior at Needham High, worked Friday at Nobles Day Camp. Boyd fits summer reading into her busy vacation schedule. (Robert Spencer for The Boston Globe)

Summer plans: Fewer pencils, fewer books

Some principals curb work over break

More public high schools in the state's affluent, high-achieving districts are lightening up the summer workload to give students a break.

Teachers at Needham High School, starting last summer, were forbidden from assigning summer homework except in select Advanced Placement courses. During the last few years, Westwood High decreased written assignments, and Weston High reduced history homework.

The schools have cut back even as other schools, such as in Belmont, Lexington, and Hingham, have continued to assign reading in numerous subjects to give students a head start on the school year.

Principals and teachers from nearly two dozen Boston-area schools say they struggle to strike a balance between parents' desires to keep their teens intellectually engaged during the summer and their complaints about students' rising stress and packed summer schedules.

Summer reading lists have long been a staple in most schools, but homework assignments for numerous subjects have not.

Starting more than a decade ago, as the competition to get into the best colleges increased and teachers felt pressure to cover more ground in a school year, the amount of summer homework rose in some schools . Students, who receive summer assignments from teachers for the upcoming school year, often are tested on the material when school resumes.

Many principals who have set limits said they were unaware until recently how much work teachers were piling on, said Paul J. Wetzel, spokesman for the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators' Association, who informally surveyed principals Friday during the organization's annual conference. Teachers were not consulting each other about how much homework they were giving, and administrators did not question the practice until parents pushed back.

``These kids are overstressed and overprogrammed," said Connie Barr, whose daughter Caroline will be a senior at Needham High. ``They need a chance to play and make decisions about how to spend their summer without something hanging over their heads all the time."

Until a couple years ago, homework assignments during the summer at Needham High were spiraling out of control, said Bob Lockhart, chairman of the science department and who has taught at the school for more than 30 years.

In addition to summer reading for English, students were receiving homework for social studies, science, and other subjects. Some of the work, Lockhart said, was meaningless and redundant.

``All of a sudden, the kids had a voluminous amount of work to do over the summer, in some cases exceeding the amount they would have over the school year," Lockhart said.

Principal Paul Richards cracked down on the amount of homework to allow more time for internships, camps, and family vacations. He prohibited most teachers from assigning work during the 11-week summer break. He kept the tradition of summer reading for English class, but loosened the requirements, giving students choices of books, including science fiction, action-adventure, and suspense thrillers.

``We're sending a message that your summer break is important and is not an extension of the school year," Richards said.

Olivia Boyd, an incoming junior at Needham High, said she has a hectic enough summer without additional homework. The 15-year-old works as a day-camp counselor, plays in a summer basketball league, and is attending field hockey camp this weekend. She has already spent two weeks as a counselor at an overnight sports camp and plans on a two-week Cape Cod vacation before school. Still, she finds time to read three books for English, especially because she can choose which ones she reads.

Weston High School has also reduced the work because students felt overwhelmed, said Cheryl Maloney, assistant superintendent of the Weston Public Schools. Incoming freshmen used to have to read five books for history in addition to English requirements, but they now read between one and three books.

While a group of parents has pressed the school to give math homework over the summer to keep students' skills fresh, the head of the math department refused their request, preferring to let students have more time to relax, Maloney said.

At Lexington High, summer homework is a long-established tradition, and there are no plans to cut back, said Principal Michael Jones. Parents and students expect it, and have not complained, he said.

Lexington's stance mirrors the position of Gerald Tirozzi , the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who says he supports assigning summer homework and thinks schooling should occur year-round.

Lexington's incoming freshmen have to read books for English, history, and earth science. Older students must read books for psychology, English, and other social studies electives.

``It's actually less stressful for students to start work over the summer," said Jones, who estimated that students have between 25 and 50 hours of work to spread over the 10-week vacation. ``It's part of the Lexington High School culture and it's just accepted."

Several Lexington High students said the assignments help keep them focused over the summer and prevent boredom.

``I feel like I probably should be spending more time dedicated to preparing for the school year because a lot of times, I just kind of hang out," said Elaina Hancock, a sophomore at Lexington High.

The 15-year-old said she spends at least one day a week reading in the local library, taking notes in the margins of her books to prepare for possible quizzes and essays in the fall.

In Belmont, students begin receiving summer homework starting in elementary school and continue to do so through high school, said Mike Harvey , interim principal at Belmont High.

One assignment, due the first day of school, is a five-page math packet for precalculus, which will be graded and tested on. Written at the top of the first page: ``DO NOT WAIT until the night before to do this!! YOU'LL BE SORRY!"

``We try to keep them busy and show kids that learning isn't something you just do in school," Harvey said.

Others, however, say the practice turns students off from learning.

``Compulsory reading assignments make kids less likely to love reading," said Alfie Kohn, a Belmont author and lecturer on education and parenting whose latest book, ``The Homework Myth," published by Da Capo Press will be released in late August. ``Kids almost always see summer homework as drudgery."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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