Twice a week, 8-year-old Terry Wesley remains at Dogwood Elementary School 90 minutes longer than most of his friends. He gets a free snack, help with his math assignments and a bus ride home -- all in the name of homework.
Wouldn't the second grader rather be outside playing with his toys?
"Nah, they can wait," Wesley said with a grin.
Wesley and 185 other youngsters are choosing homework over play because of EXCEL, a new, after-school program that provides Dogwood's young students with extra, individualized help with their homework assignments. The program's larger purpose is to improve the academic standards of the school's 107 minority students who have tested scholastically behind their classmates at the western Reston elementary school.
The acronym EXCEL stands for Extending Classroom Experiences for Lifetime-Learning.
Gina Ross, EXCEL coordinator, said the program's concept stemmed from the Fairfax County School Board's renewed efforts to upgrade the academic level of the county's minority students. She said the student response to the program was "overwhelming. I thought when the warm weather came that that would be it, but the children kept showing up."
EXCEL participants meet after their regular school day every Tuesday and Thursday at 3 p.m. in the school's cafeteria for a snack of juice, fruit, granola or peanut butter. The food is provided by parents each month and stored in the cafeteria.
Homework starts at 3:15 p.m. in the library. Ross said 30 of the school's 45 teachers volunteer their time to stay the extra 90 minutes to help the students complete homework assignments and provide individualized instruction where needed.
Ten-year-old Sandy Johnson, a fifth grader, said EXCEL has made learning "a lot more fun.
"I especially enjoy learning how to study," she said, fingering her elastic necklace of purple plastic hearts. "We learn how to learn, too."
At 3:45, the grade-level enrichment program begins; students who have not finished their homework are allowed to stay in the library for further assistance.
The children are dismissed at 4:30 p.m. and are provided with door-to-door bus service to their homes.
The enrichment program gives students extra instruction in math, reading, computers and oral language development, said Ross. "Our program is really a step beyond homework. It's to enrich and remediate at the same time," she said.
Last year, a study reported that black and Hispanic students in Fairfax County public schools were scholastically behind their white and Asian classmates. In response, the School Board established a grant fund for public schools to develop after-school educational enrichment programs such as EXCEL.
Dogwood's EXCEL program so far has received $1,313 from the School Board. The grant has supplied money for field trips, overtime pay for the public school bus drivers and miscellaneous items such as buttons and certificates for the students.
EXCEL also was prompted by a recommendation of the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education that the length of the school day be extended as a way to improve students' academic records.
The report, which studied the status of American education, found there was a declining trend in students' level of knowledge and skills, and noted teacher deficiencies in classroom management.
Commission member Margaret S. Marston, who came to Dogwood to view the program several weeks ago, said "our very future as a nation and a people is threatened by a rising tide of mediocrity" in public schools.
"Only 14 minutes is spent on instruction out of the 55 minutes in a classroom," Marston said on her recent visit to Dogwood. "EXCEL helps recognize a child's weaknesses and it helps the kids improve these weaknesses."
Ross added that parents are highly supportive of the program.
"Most parents, I find, want their child to have homework. But with today's single- and working-parent syndrome, the parents are not able to help their children as much as they wanted," said Ross.
Ross said 80 percent of EXCEL's students have working parents. She said EXCEL provides the children with "the security they don't get in other environments . . . they want to come to school."