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A Class Act : L.A. Teachers Help Kids With Homework on KLCS Call-In Show

February 09, 1992|LAUREN LIPTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lights are bright, the cameras are rolling, aaaand action! Robert Vriesman is on the air, trying to get the attention of his fifth-grade caller on "Homework Hotline"--the live TV show for students that's part talk show and part tutor.

"Gladys, are you on the line? Can you hear me, Gladys?" Vriesman looks expectantly into the camera as phones ring off the hook in the background--signifying other students waiting with questions.

Silence. Clearly, there are some technical difficulties. Vriesman, who has been teaching on television for a year, is completely unruffled. "Let's start the problem anyway, and maybe she can jump in with us," he says, and calmly divides 75 into 7584, improvising like a comedian in front of an unresponsive audience.

Such is the anything-can-happen feel of "Homework Hotline," which is often entertaining as well as educational.

Funded at approximately $500 a show by the Los Angeles Unified School District, "Homework Hotline" airs four afternoons a week on educational channel KLCS. It is divided into 15-minute segments--two in English, two in Math, and stars a rotating stable of 10 Los Angeles teachers, who also act as cheerleaders, coaxing and cajoling viewers to call the toll-free number (1-800-LA STUDY) for homework help.

And while a shoestring-budget program about the three Rs might not steal droves of viewers from MTV, "Homework Hotline"--which averages 400 to 450 calls a week and just began its eighth season--has a core of serious fans.

"It helps me a lot in school," says Tiffany Reese, a sixth-grader at Woodworth Elementary School in Inglewood, who guesses she's called the show nine or 10 times in the past year. Tiffany even has a favorite instructor: Catherine Webb, who recently helped with a book report on "Baby Sitter's Club: The Island Adventure." Tiffany couldn't figure out how to do her report, so Webb suggested she look through an astrology book and try to figure out each character's sign based on his or her personality traits. "It helped me a lot and it was fun to do," says Tiffany. She also admits she likes hearing her voice on TV.

The lure of actually being on the air, according to "Homework Hotline" staffers, is one of the main reasons the show appeals to students. But most of the calls go to a troupe of off-air teachers, who provide assistance behind the scenes. Only about 5% of the "Homework Hotline" calls are broadcast live.

The criteria? The questions have to be universal or especially interesting. It also helps if they fit into the 15-minute segments, but, says producer-director Jon C. Merritt, who coordinates the nuts and bolts of each telecast, "we're not hard and fast on that. It's more important that the question be solved than to adhere to time constraints of the show."

Sometimes, teachers even call students back once the broadcast is over. "I've seen them hang out on the phones until 6:30 or 7 at night," Merritt says. "They love it."

Indeed, the teachers have an enthusiasm for their job that transcends their $16-an-hour salary--which is slight, to say the least, by broadcasting standards. They mug for the cameras. They joke with each other. They bop around to the peppy "Homework Hotline" theme music.

"They are incredibly--what is the word--viewable," says Dr. Patricia Marshall, station manager at KLCS, who adds that, yes, the "Homework Hotline" teachers do have to audition for the job. "All good teachers are basically performers. These also happen to be very photogenic. The camera really loves them."

Some of the teachers have become minor celebrities--even among those who might not be considered typical fans. Math teacher Doris Johnson-Humphrey was once recognized in a grocery store by a grandmother. Robert Vriesman, whose "day job" is teaching algebra and bilingual math at Foshay Junior High in Los Angeles, says his students point him out on TV to their parents. He was also stopped once in a supermarket by a retired man who said "Homework Hotline" was his favorite show.

The show appeals to non-student viewers because "a lot of people, not just kids, are really interested in math, especially, but don't want to admit (they don't understand it)," speculates Patricia Marshall. About 60% of all phone calls to "Homework Hotline" are math questions, she adds.

For the teachers, knowing they have the undivided attention of at least one student out there is a luxury not often afforded in the classroom, says Vriesman. "In front of a class, you're clamoring to get their attention, whereas the camera stares at you. It's the greatest job in the world," he says.

"Well," Vriesman adds, heading back to the phones, "I'm going to go call Gladys and apologize to her."

" Homework Hotline " airs 4:30-5:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday through June, except during the extended school holidays in winter and spring. The phone line 1-800 LA STUDY operates from 3:30-7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday.

Grade yourself

Some typical "Homework Hotline" questions:

From an eighth grader

1) What is the phone number?

(-- -- --) -- -- -- - -- -- -- --

Each digit is different.

1. The product of the 6th and 7th digit equals the 3rd digit.

2. Digits 4, 8, 9 and 10 are multiples of 3.

3. The sum of the 4th and 6th digits equals the sum of the 5th and 8th digits.

4. Digits 2, 3, 6 and 7 are powers of 2.

5. Digits 1, 5, 7 and 10 are prime numbers.

From a ninth grader

2) ADD: a2b - 3ab2 - ab3 + 5ab2 - 6ab3

From a 10th grader

3) Name the six kinds of pronouns and give examples.

Answers

1) 518-974-2603

2) a2b + 2ab2 - 7ab3

3) Personal--I, you, he, she, it. Interrogative--who, which, what. Demonstrative--this, that, these. Indefinite--all, either, anyone. Reciprocal--one another, each other. Relative--who, which, that.

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