Kyle and Leon Patton have settled into a weekend routine. Friday is family night, the one evening of the week they get to spend with their sister and parents, eating pizza and watching Animal Planet. Saturday is for sports such as flag football, and Sunday is devoted to church.
But since April, they've had to work one more activity into their weekend schedule: homework.
On a recent Sunday, that meant Kyle, a third-grader, had to list 15 words with the prefixes "un," "dis" and "non" and use three of them in sentences. For math, his teacher at Fort Washington Forest Elementary School assigned homework that involved comparing the value of decimals. Meanwhile, his brother Leon, a sixth-grader at the school, determined the probability of rolling a number less than 3 from a dice cube (its faces numbered 1 to 6). Then, Leon defended his answer in writing.
To Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby, those are simple tasks that will help prepare students for state standardized tests.
But to many Prince George's parents, Hornsby's April decision to require students in kindergarten through eighth grade to do homework on weekends makes little sense, particularly because it was imposed near the end of the school year and without much community input.
In public schools nationwide, elementary and middle school teachers tend to assign little or no weekend homework, making Hornsby's mandate unusual, said Sylvia Seidel, director of teacher education initiatives for the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union. "There's so little family time," she said. "Often this is an opportunity for children and parents to do things together."
Nearly two months after Hornsby's decision, the controversy has not died down in Prince George's, where many parents complain that the homework requirement adds one more activity to juggle on weekends -- often the most frenzied part of the week for families. "It's a real juggling act, a real challenge," said Kyle and Leon's mother, Sherry Patton.
But Hornsby is adamant, noting that he arrived in Prince George's a year ago with a mandate to lift the school system from the bottom of state rankings on standardized tests. "We're starting to put the rigor in," he said. "While it, at first, might be upsetting to some in the public, they need to understand that if children are to succeed, they need to get the rigor they haven't been getting before."
The weekend assignments are just one element of Hornsby's strategy. Last month, he had teachers begin covering topics that their students normally would not see until next school year -- while having them continue teaching the current year's required material.
The so-called accelerated curriculum, which will be applied to all students from kindergarten to eighth grade, is necessary because state tests are being administered earlier than ever, Prince George's school officials said. That means teachers have to scramble to cover the state curriculum by March.
And after testing ends, many teachers let their students take it easy, Shelley Jallow, the school system's chief academic officer, said during a meeting last week with PTA members. "This is our attempt to say: No, the school year has not ended," she said.
In another attempt to get in more instruction before testing, the school board has decided to move up the school year by a week, starting the new year two weeks before Labor Day.
It is the homework part of Hornsby's program, however, that has irked parents the most.
"This is an initiative that won't just affect students. It affects parents [as] we have to make sure it gets done," said Cynthia Poles-Suite, PTA president at Paint Branch Elementary School in College Park. Poles-Suite said she makes her two children complete their assignments on Friday nights because weekends are devoted to running errands and going to church.
Last year, a Brookings Institution study found that the amount of daily time spent on homework had increased nationwide for years -- from an average of 16 minutes in 1981 to slightly more than 19 minutes in 1997 -- but that the load had not increased significantly since the mid-1990s. Many parents insist that their children get too much homework, however, and they have won some concessions from school districts.
All districts in the area encourage homework, but some, such as Arlington and Fairfax, limit how much time students should spend on assignments. Many area school officials said they discourage weekend homework, especially in elementary and middle school, so that students can spend that time with their families.
Few school districts nationally -- Chicago's being among the exceptions -- have adopted mandatory homework policies.
"Personally, I think in public schools we don't have enough homework," said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's state superintendent of schools. "However, I add this caveat: It should be high quality. It should not be busy work."
Hornsby said the curriculum he inherited was not demanding enough. "We want to make sure our young people are being challenged appropriately," he said.
Teachers have had mixed reactions to the new homework policy. Many have wondered how they are supposed to police the assignments. Although the assignments are designed by administrators in the school system's curriculum office, it is principals and teachers who must decide what to do when students don't turn in the work.
"I think teachers have not been included [in the decision], so it doesn't make sense to them," said Carol Kilby, president of Prince George's teachers union. "It just seems like a burden to them."