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FOR THE KIDS : Direct Access : Parents find the homework hot line valuable for getting involved in their children's schooling.


No homework tonight, Mom. No history to read. No English literature to worry about. No math problems to muddle through. Nothing. Zip. Trust me.

That familiar refrain might have worked once at Ojai's Matilija Junior High School, but not anymore. Since mid-January the school has operated a homework hot line parents can call 24 hours a day to find out what homework has been assigned that night.

The Ojai school is only the second in California and the 31st in the nation to install such a hot line. After just two weeks of use, administrators and teachers rave about it. Parents are enthusiastic users. And students, well, some think it's a good idea, but others see it as a rein on their independence.

"I'm ecstatic about it," said Principal James Berube. The hot line is getting up to 450 calls a day, and with 600 students that means participation is sometimes as high as 75%.

It works this way. After parents dial the hot-line number, they dial a three-digit code and listen to a recorded 45-second message from one of their child's teachers. Then they dial another code and listen to another teacher until they have heard from all of their child's teachers.

Teachers generally put on a new message each day by 4 p.m. They highlight what they did in class that day, relate the homework assignment, and sometimes offer questions on the subject matter that parents might bring up at the dinner table to stimulate conversation.

"We're extending learning into the home," Berube said.

Before the hot line, many parents and students held the same empty conversation each day. "What did you do in school today," the parent would ask. "Oh, nothing," came the answer.

"This bridges the gap," Berube said. Parents and students have a starting point for conversation. "It takes the pressure off the relationship between parent and child."

But the main reason for the hot line is to make sure that the homework gets done.

"It's an ongoing problem," Berube said. "Some students don't do it, or they don't do all of it." They would tell their parents they didn't have any homework, he said, and there was no way for parents to check.

"We finally have the power to keep students accountable to parents," he said.

And that's what some kids at the school object to.

"They try to teach us responsibility, and then they put in the hot line," said Stephanie Keeter, an eighth-grader.

A few said they didn't like it because it was all too easy now to get in trouble with parents for not doing homework. But others didn't object to it.

"Most of the kids I know think it's OK," said Karunika McNay, a seventh-grader. It helps kids too, she said, if they are sick or forget to write down the homework assignment in class.

Berube said the hot line targets the C, D and F students, but A and B students benefit from it because they have a better opportunity to discuss with their parents issues that arise out of their subjects. Some teachers have gotten creative with the hot line and posed extra-credit questions for students to ponder.

Parents say they are pleased with the hot line.

Carol Roberts, whose son and daughter attend Matilija, said the added questions posed by the teachers stimulate conversation. One night, her son's history teacher suggested on the hot line that parents discuss Dutch ovens, because the students were studying wagon trains.

It's convenient too when a child is sick, Roberts said, because the parent doesn't have to track down a teacher or another student to find out what the homework assignment is.

Although the hot line has been in use less than a month, already the teachers are reporting an improvement in homework results, Berube said. He intends to do a more thorough evaluation later on.

He became interested in the hot line two months ago after reading about an Irvine elementary school that had tried it. After meetings with the Nashville, Tenn., company that markets the system, he purchased the necessary computer equipment for $11,000. He said annual operating expenses will be about $1,500.

The system is programmed to offer other messages as well--a principal's message, school activities, athletic events, Parent-Teacher Assn. news, counseling information and club news. Berube is exploring ways to install messages in Spanish for the 35 Spanish-speaking families whose children attend the school.

Other goings-on for children:

* The Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks offers special entertainment for preschoolers every Thursday from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. in The Broadway Court. Today's O.K. Club performance is by J.P. Nightingale, a group that does stories, songs and rhymes from different cultures. On Feb. 14, kids can bring a valentine to share and make valentines for senior citizens under the direction of artist Caren Glasser.

* The third of five "Club No" teen dances, sponsored by the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District, will be held Friday at the Sycamore Drive Community Center. The theme is saying no to drugs, alcohol and gangs. Cost is $5.

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