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A House That's Like a Home

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A band of youngsters clusters around Janice Ross-Devers's kitchen table and counter, devouring an afternoon snack of tuna melts, fresh fruit, and cake.

"What did you do in school today?'' she asks the youngsters. The question elicits a few mumbles, but nothing definitive.

"What you're telling me is nothing interesting happened in school today?'' she tries again.

It's the perennial question that parents all across the country pose when they get together with their offspring at the end of the day.

But as familiar as the scene at Ross-Devers's home is, it's not your ordinary parent-and-child after-school chat.

Her house is filled with students from the nearby King Estates Junior High School in Oakland, Calif., who arrive after school to study, be tutored, play, eat a nutritious snack, and bask in the care of Ross-Devers.

"This is the routine my kids went through,'' says the mother of three adult children. "I felt that I could help some of the kids.''

The gathering is part of Kids' House--a program that places junior high students in a neighbor's home three hours a day, three days a week.

The concept is simple, deceptively so, says Elliott Medrich, a board member of the Marcus A. Foster Educational Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes improvement in the Oakland public schools through community partnerships.

No new infrastructure has to be put in place. Rather, the program is built on the dynamics of combining caring adults, young-adult role models, the school, parents or guardians, and the adolescent.

"It's got exactly the right mix of school, parent, community,'' says Medrich, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and a former assistant to Foster, the Oakland school superintendent who was assassinated by a militant group in 1973.

"We think Kids' House has the potential to build back the sense of communities taking care of kids,'' adds Ada C. Cole, the institute's executive director.

Although the idea for Kids' House did not originate in Oakland, that is where it has flourished.

The first house opened in October 1992. Last month, the two latest Kids' Houses opened, bringing the total for the time being to six.

By next year, the institute hopes to have Kids' Houses operating in conjunction with all of the district's 17 junior high and middle schools.

The one big obstacle the program faces is getting adults to open their homes. "It's hard to get people to make the commitment,'' says Brenda Lynch, the program's director.

Mixing Haves and Have-Nots

About 10 junior high school students go to neighbors' houses from 4 to 7 P.M. Helping out the home provider are high school or college students who tutor the younger boys and girls.

The program is organized enough to give the youths a sense of structure yet flexible enough to allow the home provider to adapt it to his or her and the youngsters' styles.

For example, Kids' House must operate on three consecutive school days, but the provider chooses which ones.

Kids' House caters to a mix of students. Many, though, live with their grandparents or relatives other than their parents.

Some of the children are from poor families; others are from working-class families. Some need help with their schoolwork; others do well academically but may need to work on social skills. Most need somewhere to go for adult supervision after school.

"The idea is to bring everyone together,'' says DeeDee Logan, a provider who also works at King Estates Junior High as a community liaison. "Those who have can assist those who don't have.''

The program costs $10,000 to $12,000 per house, depending on the number of tutors needed and the hours they work. Home providers receive a $400 monthly stipend, and tutors earn $7 an hour.

Kids' House will also pick up the cost of any supplemental homeowners' insurance necessary.

Funding currently comes from a small cadre of foundations and businesses, but Cole hopes to persuade neighborhood dry cleaners, drugstores, convenience markets, and other local concerns to support their local Kids' House.

The latest foundation to sign on is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

"We thought [the institute] was taking a unique approach by putting it into homes,'' says Amy Lyons, a program officer for the foundation. "It had a less institutional feel about it.''

What also appealed to the fund, she says, was the age group it targeted--junior high youths who are often overlooked.

Finally, she says, fund officials liked the idea that Kids' House was "not strictly homework or academics. It delves into other areas.''

Iris D. Miller admits that she gushes over the way Kids' House has helped her grandson. "I just love the program,'' she says. "It's a godsend.''

"Glen was shy,'' Miller says. "Since he has been coming to Kids' House, he's just bubbly. He's more outgoing; he's singing in the choir at church.''

Not 'Homework House'

As school ends for the day, Ross-Devers picks up her charges at King Estates Junior High and drives them to her stucco, split-level home. Students generally can walk to their Kids' House, but Ross-Devers lives about three miles of hills and valleys from school.

As most of the school's 600 students board buses to leave, Principal Lynn H. Dodd worries about many of them. But "I don't worry about my kids who are at Kids' House,'' she says.

After finishing their snacks at Ross-Devers's house on this midwinter day, the students--five girls and two boys (two other boys are at basketball practice and a third is ill)--help clean up the kitchen and then troop downstairs to the study room. Appointed with two personal computers, enticing travel posters, and a world map that takes up an entire wall, the room is a comfortable and intimate setting for study.

On sheets taped to a door, Ross-Devers checks off attendance and homework assignments.

Also attached to the door are the house rules: Be prompt. Be prepared. Be responsible. Be respectful.

There are others. For example, the youngsters must attend school if they want to go to Kids' House.

At another house, one girl refused to attend school, so she was not allowed to participate in the program. "We left the door open, told her she was welcome to come back,'' Lynch says.

But the program's philosophy relies more on the students' keeping each other in line as they grow closer and build confidence in this informal, close-knit setting.

After a few minutes of hubbub, the students begin to settle down and start their homework under the guidance of their two tutors.

Glen Miller and Renell Finley sit on the sofa, reading Lessons From History, A Celebration in Blackness to one tutor, Che Malik Bowe.

The other tutor, Andrea Williams, helps Victoria Ajayi with a questionnaire about the U.S. Constitution.

With Ross-Devers by her side, Dawnisha Johnson works on one of the "Carmen Sandiego'' computer programs.

Although learning may be a key ingredient, Kids' House emphasizes that it is not the only one, and maybe not even the most important. "This is not 'homework house,''' Medrich says.

In its first year of operation, 63 percent of the students improved their grades. At the same time, 21 percent of the participants experienced a drop in their marks.

"We had hoped we would have more impact on academic performance,'' Lynch says. Then Kids' House officials adjusted their expectations. "We accepted the fact that we were meeting the needs of students if we could bring them from D to C-.''

Love and Hugs

Ross-Devers, a licensed vocational nurse and the owner of a bookstore, opened her house to the students last September.

Initially, she says, some of her charges were temperamental. "But now we're like a big family.''

She keeps parents and guardians apprised of the youngsters' progress, and she talks to their teachers, too.

Ross-Devers will also try to help students iron out any problems she senses they might have.

"If I think they have a problem, I'll pull them aside and we'll talk,'' she says. "At the beginning, they won't tell me. But the more we talk, the more comes out.''

Problems still arise occasionally. Some of the youths want to play around more than they should. Also, there's a little back talk now and then, but most of that has disappeared.

Ross-Devers says she gives students clear choices. When someone breaks a rule, she will discuss it with the student and then ask if he or she wants to continue in the program. The message gets through.

But disciplinarian is far from her primary role. "You have to compliment them, you have to love them, you have to hug them,'' she says.

A Family Affair

In the Ross-Devers household, Kids' House truly is a family affair. Her 3-year-old grandson, Lee, gets his snack and homework along with the older boys and girls. Her daughter, Connie Carey, offers grooming and etiquette lessons for the girls.

The lesson for the day is a review of how to walk properly and the ladylike way to bend and retrieve an object from the floor. Oblivious to the incongruity of some of their dress--baggy jeans, oversized T-shirts, and sneakers--and the lesson at hand, the girls take turns walking across the floor, squatting and scooping up a pen. A couple exhibit grace; the others, still unsure of themselves, drop their heads as they walk or wobble as they bend.

Carey, who majored in engineering in college before following her dream of acting and modeling, also uses the occasion to prod the girls into pondering their futures.

"If you don't work at it,'' she tells the girls, "it's just not going to pop.''

Assessing Responsibility

Group discussion fills the last half hour of the day. School progress reports indicate that some of the youngsters are showing signs of setback.

Bowe and Williams, the tutors, take the lead. In no uncertain terms they try to impress upon the students that they are responsible for their own success or failure in school regardless of problems with the schools, the teachers, or anything else.

The participants provide a lengthy list of the things they don't like about school--the teachers, the other kids, the attitudes, the classes. One girl describes her frustration with teachers who, she says, never have enough time for her.

"I sympathize with you,'' says Bowe, who, like Williams, graduated from college last year. "Public schools aren't adequate, especially for African-Americans. There's not enough money; teachers don't have their heart in it. If schools don't offer it, you have to get it on your own time.''

"Ten years from now, 15 years from now, you can't blame it'' on a specific teacher, Bowe continues.

Then he extends his arm, points his index finger, and recites an African proverb about the assessment of blame: "Remember, when you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.''

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