A group of preschool parents from Aurora Public Schools made a surprising request last spring.

They asked administrators to give their 3- and 4-year-olds homework.

More specifically, they asked for a year-round homework calendar detailing things they should be working on at home with their kids — not hours of pencil-and-paper work, but rather daily activities with an educational twist. They also asked the district’s Colorado Preschool Program Advisory Council to add a section on homework to the parent handbook.

These requests, which district officials have agreed to address, may sound unusual in an age when many parents and educators worry that inappropriate academic work is weaseling its way into kindergarten and preschool.

But they also bring up compelling questions about the definition and value of homework, and how those things should be articulated for both parents and teachers. They also raise the thorny issue of how homework resources will impact children whose parents don’t have the time or ability to work with them at home.

Nevertheless, for Aurora parents active in the recent campaign, homework represents a commonsense approach to helping their children succeed in a district and metro area studded with race- and income-based achievement gaps.

“We’re just looking for simple things,” said Diana Castro, whose 4-year-old daughter Miranda attends the Jamaica Child Development Center. “Most of us, which are minorities, don’t have access to printers and computers, so we don’t really know what to do to help them.”

Getting started

The Aurora parents active in the preschool homework campaign came together through a nonprofit called RISE Colorado. The group, founded in 2012 by two Teach for America alumni and a third co-founder, aims to educate and empower low-income parents and parents of color.

More than 80 percent of Aurora students are minorities, about 70 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and more than one-third are English language learners. Districtwide, fewer than half of students scored proficient or advanced on state reading tests in 2014.

The preschool parents banded together last fall after RISE held education events at the district’s preschool centers detailing the “opportunity gaps” children would encounter during their educational careers.

As the parents talked together about their biggest concerns, homework quickly rose to the top of the list.

There was no consistency, they agreed. Some teachers didn’t send any assignments or activity suggestions home at all. Others did, but sporadically and they didn’t always tie in to what children were learning at school.

Parent Sipinga Fifita-Nau described getting homework “here and there” last year for her middle child Lisia, who will soon begin her second year at Laredo Child Development Center. Sometimes, the mother of three turned to Pinterest to come up with activities for Lisia.

“With 3- and 4-year-olds you’re educating them about the habit of doing homework,” she said, echoing a sentiment voiced by several parents.

RISE co-CEO Veronica Palmer said while the organization coached parents on how to raise concerns, navigate district bureaucracy and join decision-making bodies, it was parents who spearheaded the homework charge.

Castro, who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico at age 15, said before getting involved in RISE, “I didn’t even think about talking to the principal about these things that I wanted to happen.”

The impact of homework

For older students, the research on homework is mixed, without clear connections to increased achievement. For the youngest learners, there’s little data either way.

In part, it’s a terminology issue. That’s because what some people might call preschool homework — things like counting shapes around the house, thinking of words that start with “A,” or reading books together — others would  call “nurturing,” “playing” or “spending quality time.”

Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said “parent engagement” is the best way to think of homework at the preschool level.

“We know that engaging families in children’s learning, helps child development,” he said.

A 2013 report on parent engagement by the National Center for Children in Poverty demonstrated the positive effects of parent-led extracurricular activities. Things like playing alphabet games, telling stories, doing art projects, or visiting the library were associated with improved language, literacy, social, and learning skills in preschoolers. Similarly, parent-child activities like board games, counting, and comparing amounts of items, were associated with preschool math skills.

One potential drawback to these activities when they’re framed as homework is the assumption they makes about parents’ ability to comply. For example, notes or written materials sent home by teachers assume that parents can read proficiently, that they understand the language in which instructions are written, and that they have time to work with children after school.

District spokeswoman Patti Moon said homework calendar activities are meant to be easy and quick for parents to undertake.

Palmer acknowledged that some parents, perhaps some from the district’s large refugee community, may not be able to read the homework calendars, but said they are a resourceful group likely to seek help from friends, neighbors or teachers.

In addition, with some parents already doing enrichment activities on their own, she believes the daily calendars will better equip the parents who weren’t doing much at home.

“To me its closing the gap as opposed to widening it,” she said.

Regardless of what form homework takes, Snow said districts should have homework policies for students at every grade level, including preschool.

“If there’s no policy at all that’s the worst-case scenario for everyone involved,” he said.

While there are no current plans to establish a school board-approved homework policy in Aurora, Moon said by 2016-17, the preschool handbook will include “language about how individual sites support homework.”

Homework in a cultural context

With Aurora students coming from more than 100 countries, it’s no surprise that some RISE parents come to the homework debate with different cultural perspectives.

Kumar and Shova Dahal, who immigrated here from Nepal several years ago and have a 4-year-old daughter at Laredo, talked about the “homework culture” in which they were raised.

“Since childhood we have been bombarded by homework, no matter how small you are,” said Kumar, who is a business development manager at an electronics company.

“That’s how we grew up and we come here, it’s a little bit of a shock,” said Shova.

The Dahals said in addition to homework that aligns with school lessons, they want parents to be held accountable for ensuring it gets done—perhaps by having teachers check off the work each day.

Snow said both parents and teachers should be accountable to each other, but how that looks will depend on continuing conversations in the district.

“Homework is a product of the relationship between the school and the family,” he said. “This all has to be driven by a dialogue about what the relationship should look like.”

The response

School and district administrators say they are happy to work with parents on the homework issue and have them as members of the Colorado Preschool Program Advisory Committee.

Laredo’s principal, Cynthia Andrews, said that when parents asked to meet with her in the spring she wasn’t expecting homework to be their focus, but she’s glad they brought it up.

“I love that they came to me,” she said. “I knew it was important and knew … I wanted to start engaging parents more in those conversations.”

She quickly convened a homework committee of about 10 staff members and is working with parents to develop a “homework brochure” that will describe what form preschool homework will take and what research recommends.

“We wanted it to be the right kind of homework, the things that are developmentally appropriate for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.”

Andrews knows that some parents might not feel it’s rigorous enough.

“Even when we say this is our idea of homework, I’m not sure it will match their idea,” she said. “I’m interested in seeing how it all plays out.”

For now, the RISE parents are pleased with the results of their efforts. They say the summer homework calendar, published in both English and Spanish, and the eventual handbook language on homework represent a good start.

Perhaps even better was the reception they got from district staff—a bit hesitant at first, but ultimately receptive.

“They heard us. That’s the main thing,” said Shova Dahal. “They are really respectful of what we want for our kids.”