Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Homework help is just a channel click away

For 21 years, Homework Hotline Live! has helped Montgomery students make the grade

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Photo courtesy of Homework Hotline
Teachers Melvin Smith of Roberto W. Clemente Middle School and Kit Noonan of Carderock Springs Elementary School answer questions during one of last year’s Homework Hotline Live! sessions.
Two sheets of brick wall paper. A glass roundtable, some pencils, paper and a big white erase board. A trendy skeleton, sometimes with a rainbow curly Afro wig and feather boa, other times with a black top hat and blazer.

This is the scene of the Montgomery school system’s popular Homework Hotline Live! show, which airs from a secluded downstairs studio at the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville.

On the show, entering its 22nd season on the air this fall, teachers spend 90 minutes taking phone calls from students with questions on their homework. While the educators get occasional inquiries about science or reading, 85 percent of the questions last season were from students needing math help, according to school statistics.

‘‘Sometimes they’ll call and say ‘I just don’t get math at all,’” said retired county math teacher Mike DeGraba, who answers inquiries on his own show, ‘‘The Math Dude,” which airs after Homework Hotline. ‘‘But we’re not know-it-alls and we don’t profess to be.”

Homework Hotline Live! airs 4:30 to 6 p.m. on most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from October to April. Nine teachers are on the cast. Three teachers are on camera per show and another four off-screen answer telephone calls.

Not all calls make it on air; some students don’t want to have their question broadcast on live TV. Some questions are easily solved behind the cameras; others are so detailed that teachers need to call the student back when they find a solution.

The show averaged 26 calls a night last school year, with most of the questions coming between October and November, according to statistics. The frequency of calls waned as the season went on: 24 calls per night in February, 23 calls in March and only 19 in April.

Calls tend to spike when a teacher introduces a new concept in class, said Carlton R. Lewis, a producer of the show the past two years.

And while most of the calls come from elementary and middle school students, the show accepts calls from any student. Calls last year came from students in 191 of Montgomery’s then 199 public schools.

Questions don’t come only from Maryland students; cast members have gotten calls from pupils in New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania, Lewis said.

‘‘We do a few things to keep our audience tuned in,” said Lewis, who is not producing the show next season. ‘‘We have fun, but we keep the students engaged.”

The early days

The show wasn’t always a hit. When the program first aired in February 1986, a year after MCPS started Instructional Television, there was only one teacher on camera. Many times, staffers had to prepare a lesson plan for each show because they only had one or two calls a night.

At the time, there were roughly 24,000 houses with cable in Montgomery, said Dick L. Lipsky, ITV supervisor.

But as the years passed, the show slowly gained momentum. ‘‘We could see we were getting more and more calls,” DeGraba said. ‘‘We were preparing less and less.”

There are other resources to get homework help, like the Homework Board where students can find class assignments online and a Blackboard Learning System that publishes course catalogs on the schools’ Web site.

Some students call the studio regularly, said Martha Williams, a special education teacher at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington who answers calls in the studio’s phone room.

‘‘Once the kids find out this is the place they can call and get help, they call,” Williams said. ‘‘Sometimes, the parents will call because the kids are too shy.”

As for the years it’s taken to build the show: All a part of the plan. ‘‘There’s an old saying in show business,” Lipsky said. ‘‘It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.”

Watch the show

The Homework Hotline number is 301-279-3234.

The program, shown on channel 33, airs 4:30-6 p.m. on most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from October through April.

E-mail questions to

To watch online, go to and click on the ‘‘Homework Hotline” link near the bottom of the home page. Because of a slight transmission delay, the staff cannot put Webcast viewers on the air. Students can still call and get help from teachers in the phone room.