Innovations: Home Away From Home

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The arrangement 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 deceptively simple, says Elliott Medrich, a board member of the Marcus Foster Educational Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes community partnerships with the Oakland public schools. No new infrastructure has to be put in place. Rather, the program combines the dynamics of caring adult role models, the school, parents or guardians, and adolescents. "It's got exactly the right mix of school, parent, community,'' says Medrich, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

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

Although the idea for Kids' House did not originate in Oakland, that is where it has flourished. The first house opened here in October 1992. The latest two opened in February, bringing the current total 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. But the one obstacle the program faces is finding caring adults who are willing to open their homes. "It's hard to get people to make the commitment,'' says Brenda Lynch, the program's director.

About 10 junior high school students go to each project house 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 young adolescents a sense of structure yet flexible enough to allow the home provider to adapt it to his or her style. Each house, for example, must operate on three consecutive school days, but the provider chooses which ones.

The program caters to a mix of students. Many, though, live with their grandparents or relatives other than their parents. Some are from poor families; others from working-class families. Some need help with schoolwork; others do well academically but 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 project costs $10,000 to $12,000 per house annually, 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. The program will also pick up the cost of supplemental homeowners' insurance if needed. The funding currently comes from a handful of foundations and businesses, but organizers hope to persuade local dry cleaners, drugstores, convenience markets, and other similar concerns to support a Kids' House in their immediate neighborhoods.

The latest foundation to sign on is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, which was drawn to the program's home-care approach. "It had a less institutional feel about it,'' says Amy Lyons, a program officer for the fund. What also appealed, she says, was the age group it targets-- junior high kids who are often overlooked.

"This program is a godsend,'' says Iris Miller, whose grandson is one of Ross-Devers' charges. "Glen was shy, but since he has been coming to Kids' House, he's just bubbly. He's more outgoing.''

Ross-Devers picks up her students at King Estates at the end of the school day and drives them to her split-level, stucco home. (Most participating students walk to their Kids' Houses, but Ross-Devers lives about three miles from the school.) After finishing their snacks 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.

Ross-Devers checks off attendance and homework assignments on sheets taped to a door, which is also where the house rules are posted. Among them: Be prompt. Be prepared. Be responsible. Be respectful.

After a few minutes of hubbub, the students begin to settle down and start their homework under the guidance of two tutors. Students Glen Miller and Renell Finley sit on the sofa, reading Lessons From History: A Celebration in Blackness to tutor Che Malik Bowe. The other tutor, Andrea Williams, helps Victoria Ajayi with a questionnaire about the U.S. Constitution. Student Dawnisha Johnson, with RossDevers by her side, works at one of the computers.

During the program's first year of operation, the grades of 63 percent of the participating students improved. But another 21 percent actually saw their marks drop. Initially, organizers were disappointed; they had hoped the program would have a profound impact on students' academic performances. Since then, they have adjusted their expectations somewhat. Although learning is still a key goal, it is not the only one and may not even be the most important. After all, says Medrich, "this is not 'homework house.' ''

Ross-Devers, a licensed vocational nurse and owner of a bookstore, opened her house to students in September. Initially, she says, some of her charges were temperamental. "But now,'' she adds, "we're like a big family.''

She keeps parents and guardians apprised of the youngsters' progress, and she talks to their teachers, too. She also tries 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 kids want to play around more than they should. And there's a little back talk now and then. But most of that has disappeared. "You have to compliment them,'' she says. "You have to love them; you have to hug them.''

Group discussions usually fill the last half-hour of the students' stay. Today, tutors Bowe and Williams take the lead. School prog- ress reports indicate that some of the youngsters are showing signs of setback, and the tutors want to know what gives. The students 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.

Bowe and Williams respond. In no uncertain terms, they impress upon the students that they are responsible for their own successes or failures in school. "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.''

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

Vol. 05, Issue 08, Page 1-24

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