When Lewis family members brought home a Commodore 64 personal computer this winter, it was so popular in their Forestville household of 10 children, they had to institute a schedule of computer time.
At the Roy family apartment in Capitol Heights, there are only four children competing for the computer keyboard, but it is still a novelty in demand.
Computers were formerly a high-tech mystery to the families, but through John H. Bayne Elementary School in Capitol Heights, the Lewises and Roys are becoming well-acquainted with the Commodore 64.
John Bryce students are allowed to borrow personal computers for a month as part of a program aimed at reinforcing basic skills and introducing the computers to the whole family. It is the only school in the county with such a program.
The take-home computers -- instituted with a $100,000 donation from Prescription Learning, an Illinois software firm -- have presented only minor maintenance problems, said John Bayne principal Joyce A.M. Thomas.
Families "take care of them, they enjoy them and they use them. It's like a new toy at home," she said.
The school has sent home its 20 computers, which can be plugged into any television set, with math and reading assignments. Students in the third and fifth grades are in the take-home program, while fourth and sixth graders are using computers at school. Before the keyboard, software and other equipment goes home, parents attend a brief training session at the school.
"It's like a bookmobile, a lending library," said Thomas. "For some, this is the first time they've really gotten close to a computer . . .and they're really delighted."
Since the county introduced the program last fall, Washington has instituted a similar effort through a federally funded program for disadvantaged students.
More than 100 Prince George's families have borrowed computers in the past several months. School officials hope the program will pay off by shoring up math and reading skills at John Bayne, where student performance on standardized tests has been among the lowest in the county. The school was also chosen because many of its students come from low- and moderate-income families.
Parents and educators believe the program is already helping students with their studies, in some cases by allowing them to play games like "vowel baseball."
"It makes them excited about doing their homework," said David Roy, whose three oldest children attend Bayne. "I'll probably end up buying one . . . . "
Margaret Lewis said the take-home program was important to her family because she couldn't afford to buy a computer. "That's about the only way we'd get one."
Her children are "intrigued" with the device, she said, and, if she gets a chance, she'll use it to work out the family budget.
By the end of the year, every family requesting a personal computer will have a chance to borrow one, Thomas said.
Harry Gemberling, supervisor of instructional data systems for the county schools, said he expects the program to be expanded next year. One of the most important elements, he said, is parental involvement.
"The school can do lots of things for kids," Gemberling said, "but if you don't get that support at home . . . . But if a parent is working with them at home, that focuses for the child that this is an important thing to accomplish."