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Hot Line Puts Homework a Touch-Tone Away

'Whaddya mean, a test?!' - Excuses don't hold up when parents, and kids, can listen to school voice mail

Every afternoon when 10-year-old David Furr comes home from school, he makes a two-minute telephone call back to school. By dialing a special Homework Hotline number, he can listen to a voice-mail message from his teacher, repeating the homework she gave in class.

"I call to make sure I have all my assignments, so I don't come back tomorrow and not have my homework done," says David, a fourth-grader in Woodbridge, Va. "I really think it's great."

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His mother, Brenda Furr, also calls the hotline every evening to hear messages for David's class and her younger son's first-grade class. "The teachers give an overview of what they did that day and what's coming up for the next day," Mrs. Furr says. "If there's something you don't understand or you want to leave a personal message for the teacher, you can. It's wonderful."

For students in more than 600 schools across the country, 24-hour voice messaging systems like this offer a high-tech link between school and home, giving parents a new way to stay involved in their children's education. By using a touch-tone phone, families can learn about cafeteria menus, sports events, parents' meetings, and weather-related school closings. Administrators can also program the system to deliver routine reminders to all parents or make specific calls to certain groups, such as parents of absentees. No longer can students give parents the old excuse, "I don't have any homework," or plead to teachers that they didn't know about the test on Friday.

The results, educators say, include better-prepared students, higher attendance rates for school functions, and more supportive parents. One study by researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville found that in most schools, at least half the parents call in every day to hear teachers' messages. Another independent study conducted by the principal of a Midwestern junior high school showed that after the hotline started in 1990, the percentage of students eligible for honors almost doubled. Those with low grade-point averages dropped from 24 percent to 5 percent.

The system was introduced in 1989 by Homework Hotline Educational Services in New York.

Paula Williams, the Homework Hotline coordinator at MacAuliffe Elementary School in Manassas, Va., where David Furr is a student, notes that the majority of parents at the school are employed. "They don't always have time to sit down and read some of the communications that come home, but they will dial in and hear the teachers' messages," she says. "They can use their speaker phone and listen while they cook dinner."

Elsewhere in Manassas, Steve Constantino, principal of Stonewall Jackson High School, finds similar support. "We get a lot of good feedback. People stop me everywhere I go and tell me it's terrific," he says. In the first 3-1/2 months, his system logged 58,000 calls. He also uses messages to inform parents about proposed budget cuts and their potential impact.

One enthusiastic parent in his school is Irene Gluck, whose 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, uses the system daily to double-check assignments. In addition to listing daily homework, Mrs. Gluck explains, teachers describe long-term projects. "They'll say, 'Right now we're reading "One Hundred Years of Solitude." It has to be finished by the end of the month, and then the journals will be due after that.'"

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She adds, "We have fathers who travel overseas. One phoned in from Saudi Arabia and got his son's homework. When the father called home and asked about an assignment, his son said, 'Dad, how did you know that?'"

Installation costs range from $12,000 to $15,000. In some cases, Homework Hotline Educational Services links corporations and foundations with schools that need money for the project.

Last September, the American Business Collaboration, a group of 21 large corporations, donated $1.4 million to install the Homework Hotline in 100 schools. Explaining the rationale, Chris Kjeldsen, vice president of community and workplace programs at Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J., says, "As a major employer, we're concerned about the future work force and the ability of our young people to develop appropriately. We view this as not just a short-term program. We really believe it's going to have a major impact on young people as they come of age."

One beneficiary of Collaboration funding is Hester Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. Since nearly three-quarters of the school's students are Hispanic, messages are bilingual. Although Principal Harry Davis sends home a weekly newsletter in both English and Spanish, he knows some families are illiterate. He says, "For them it's better to hear an auditory message, as opposed to a written message, because not all our parents have the ability to read in either language."

Some teachers, Mr. Davis says, also use messages to recruit chaperones for field trips. Others give recognition to students ("Last week we had perfect attendance for two days") and express appreciation to parents who volunteer.

Not everyone regards these high-tech connections as necessary. "Some people say we're not teaching students responsibility, because they don't have to pay attention in class to what the homework is," says Patricia Turner, a fifth-grade teacher at Simonds Elementary School in San Jose. "But it's actually a reinforcement of the classwork."

Her own friendly message one recent day included information about a visit to the school library and advance notice about experiments for a coming science fair. Explaining that the homework was a spelling practice test, Ms. Turner said, "If there are any errors, please have students study a little harder and retest them for perfection. Also, reading in 'Island of the Blue Dolphins' should be completed up to chapter 12 tonight. We will be having a quiz tomorrow."

For Ms. Williams in Virginia, who has been tracking the elementary school hotline since its installation nearly six months ago, the benefits are obvious. "We're seeing a lot more homework coming in, and we're seeing a lot more connectedness with parents taking some responsibility for that part of their child's learning process," she says. "Teachers can't do it alone. We have to have that reiteration and reinforcement at home."

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