Kensington lifeguard Andre Joutz, 16, kept his eyes on the pool this weekend, his last days on the job. But George Orwell's "Looking Back on the Spanish War" and calculus equations -- the residue of 50 hours' worth of summer homework -- also were swimming through his mind.
This week, Arlington seventh-grader Patrick Stearman will smooth out his wrinkled 10-page math packet and polish off the final 30 problems before school starts Sept. 7. His sister Natalie, 14, will trudge through "Lord of the Flies," which she toted along on the family vacation to Colorado but has not yet cracked.
"Yeah, I need to start that," she said, sitting in her family's screened-in porch on a recent muggy evening.
Students across the region are squeezing a lot into the waning days of August: their last midweek sleepovers, their final ballgames -- and the summer homework they might not have looked at since stuffing it into their backpacks on the last day of school back in June.
Nowadays, students are assigned more often than given suggested reading to fill in those moments of boredom between tree climbing and squirt-gun fights. With testing pressures and competition to get into universities more extreme than ever, schools are laying the homework on thick, even during summer. That's turned Labor Day weekend into a cram session for some kids.
The idea behind summer homework, educators say, is to keep the brain nimble year-round. Many parents say they're grateful for work that keeps summer from being a video-game marathon. But some say summer homework can be too much of a good thing at best, and useless at worst.
"Summer is a time to be more creative, to have the time to look at the stars, to ride your bike, to be a little bored -- whatever it takes to let your brain be a kid," said Sheryl Steinhart, 50, of Potomac. Her 11-year-old son, Alain, was assigned "pages and pages of busywork" this summer, she said.
In recent years, such protests have forced some school districts to tone down summer assignments. Last year, the Arlington County school district began limiting homework after parents complained their students were pulling August all-nighters to finish work in every subject -- including band. Hoover Middle School in Montgomery County trimmed summer homework at the urging of a parent committee that studied the issue two years ago.
The load varies from school to school, but summer homework is still going strong in many places. It can be especially intense at competitive high schools, where Advanced Placement teachers often give incoming students a taste of the high-level work they'll face during the year. Students registered for several AP classes can expect to analyze thousands of pages of literature, work out dozens of math problems and -- if they're enrolled in AP Studio Art at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda -- finish 10 paintings over the summer.
"Learning is lifelong, and it shouldn't stop in the summer," said T.G. Finkbinder, an English teacher at Walter Johnson.
Younger students are not exempt. They get to do book reports and arithmetic worksheets.
It's hard to be disciplined when the beach or camp beckons, however, so many students are just now hitting the books.
After a month at a science program for aspiring doctors and a week in Puerto Rico with her family, Kathy Ibarra, a senior at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, is scrambling to finish up an analysis of Dante's "Inferno" and fill out note cards for a 20th-century history class before Sept. 7, when most Virginia schools in the Washington area are back in session. School starts in Fauquier County today, along with most Maryland schools in the region that aren't already in session.
"I'll definitely get it done," said Kathy, 17. "The majority of people do it at the last minute."
Dmitri Joutz, 8, who will begin fourth grade at the private McLean School of Maryland, said he has "been working all summer long." His 60-page math booklet is in the can, but he's still got a few book responses -- which can be in the form of dioramas, poems or letters -- hanging over his head. He said he would rather "be playing with Legos and watching some TV."
Homework is pretty much the last thing most kids want to do during the summer, giving some parents another source of resentment: the nagging they have to do.
"If only because I feel like I want a break, can I please have a month where I don't have to worry about if they've done their homework?" said Jane de Winter, 45, mother of Andre and Dmitri Joutz.
Experts say students aren't quite brain-dead after three months without glancing at a book, but there's plenty of evidence for what pedagogues call "summer learning loss." The average student loses about a month's worth of math knowledge, and low-income students fall behind in reading after a school-free summer, said Harris Cooper, director of the Program in Education at Duke University.
Of course, Cooper said, students who leave homework for late August will not necessarily avoid the summer learning vacuum.
There are alternatives to cramming, students point out. For nearly every novel featured on a high school syllabus, there is the procrastinator's best friend, Cliffs Notes, and its cousin, Sparknotes. At some schools, there is a black market for summer math packet answers.
Harris Middel, 15, an incoming sophomore at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, skimmed the 600-some pages of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" this summer to "get the main idea." He also watched the movie -- because it is "really, really similar" to the book.
"It was a good story," he concluded.
Yorktown High School English teacher Barbara Ratchford said she checks summer work carefully. But her 47 years in the classroom have taught her to be realistic about her students' last-minute efforts.
"Even if they've read it just once quickly, that's okay. We can build from there," she said. As for Cliffs Notes? "They have some provocative ideas."