Startled by the number of failing grades his students were receiving, principal David Chambers of Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary High School in Montebello, California, made making up missed work a mandatory activity. The policy has produced more honor students, raised the average GPA, and improved teacher morale. Could it work for your school? Included: Lessons Chambers has learned along the way -- and tips for starting your own homework study hall program!
Several years ago, the vice principal of Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary High School moved on. Principal David Chambers fulfilled both roles for part of the summer, until a replacement was found. One of the tasks Chambers performed was a review of the records of students who had received failing grades -- and what he discovered shocked him. He found that many students had failed a course and, among those students, several had multiple Fs. Chambers knew something had to change.
"Failing grades are a common concern at high schools and a problem that is tough to solve," said the Montebello, California, educator. "It was obvious that homework was the area we needed to tackle first. Our teachers felt that if our students would consistently do their homework, grades would automatically increase because students would have a better understanding of the material."
The solution was obvious: Chambers created a mandatory homework policy. Students would be required to make up missed homework assignments by the next day, either before or after school.
Processing the Data
Chambers assigned an administrator to oversee the process of tracking missed homework assignments, notifying students when they needed to attend a "homework study hall," contacting parents, and maintaining the flexibility of the program so it easily could be adapted as problems were identified. (At the beginning of the program, those tasks took about four hours per day, but now that the project is established, the task takes only about an hour each day.) In addition, two teachers receive a stipend to proctor the morning and afternoon homework sessions, and a college student works part-time entering the homework data into a database Chambers designed using Microsoft Access.
"Teachers fill out a simple homework study hall form," Chambers explained. "Many of our teachers have the student fill out the form, and then they check it for accuracy. One part of the form goes to the student, another to the data processor, another stays with the teacher, and another goes to the proctors. Students can complete missing assignments after school at 2:50 p.m. or before school at 7:00 a.m. That choice eliminates complaints from coaches and/or moderators, and provides students who receive [after-school] detention for another infraction no reason to skip it."
After five missed assignments, a letter is sent to the student's parents; after ten missed assignments, an appointment is made with the parents and administrator. If students fail to hand in 15 assignments on time, they are placed on academic probation; after 20 missed assignments a student might appear before an academic board to determine whether he or she should remain at the school. Students rarely have to appear before the board.
Reaction to the mandatory homework policy and study halls has surprised Chambers. Many students have been very positive about the program; they seem to like the added incentive to complete their homework. The average GPA increased immediately by almost half of a grade point, and even the performance of the honor students improved.
"We didn't consider the fact that honor students don't always do their homework," he said. "When all students began to do their homework, our honor roll went from 32 percent of the student body to more than 50 percent."
Although the effect of "homework study hall" has been less striking during the second year of the program, the school still has about half the number of failing grades that it had before initiating the policy; and the average GPA is a quarter of a point higher than it was before the policy was initiated. Chambers believes that some teachers are using homework study hall less often, and that other teachers grade more strictly because of increased student performance.
"Our teachers are very happy with the program," Chambers observed. "Its initial effect was to increase faculty morale quite a bit. When you go from 30 percent of students turning in homework to 90 percent, it makes you feel like you're really having an impact. Also, the students know the material and perform better on tests. Now, it is such a part of our daily life that teachers use it as another tool to motivate students."
Parents also seem to be pleased with the mandatory homework completion policy. "I had a single mom tell me that she just doesn't have time to chase after her daughter to do her homework, but now her daughter does her homework every night," recalled Chambers.
Some parents even have asked why they weren't notified about missing homework before the total reached five missing assignments. Before the program went into effect, unless a teacher phoned the parents, they would not have been aware of the problem until progress reports were distributed.
"Now that we've used the program for almost two years, the kudos have slowed down somewhat, and parents just accept it as part of our overall program," Chambers said. "Now, the parents who are most excited about it are our new parents."