TAMPA — This fall, for the first time in 15 years, Hillsborough's middle school students haven't been able turn on the television for help when they get stumped on math homework.
Budget cuts have forced the blackout of the Education Channel's Math Homework Hotline. While not as flashy as some children's programming, the simple format served a purpose.
Live on the air, teachers helped students figure out tricky math questions, which they called into a phone hotline. The show solved problems, quite literally, for children and parents all over the county.
"When our students came home and they were struggling over their homework, sometimes the math involved at the middle school went beyond what the parents could recall," said Janet Boatman, supervisor of middle school math, who helped create the program. "They were able to get help immediately."
The show's phone lines fielded about 1,800 calls per year from students at more than 100 schools, said Ann Goldenberg, the Education Channel's executive director.
The channel found that about 46,000 households watched the Math Homework Hotline. That amounts to about 70 percent of the viewing audience with children in the home.
"You saw that ah-ha moment over and over again," Goldenberg said. "And you see that the kids who called were going to be okay."
A recent Hillsborough district survey of students at three dozen middle schools indicated that half had watched the Math Homework Hotline, which aired live once a week and was replayed twice during the week.
Curtailing the program was just one of the many hard decisions the station was forced to make after Hillsborough County cut $500,000 in its funding in two years.
The Education Channel has laid off half its staff and is seeking to build community support — just to stay on the air.
Hillsborough school officials are looking for ways to bring back the show. In the past, the Education Channel says teacher salaries were the bulk of the district's share of expenses for the program, averaging around $25,000 per year. There were two on-air tutors and three off-camera tutors to help students work through math problems.
But the district, which now has to pay for airtime with the Education Channel, faces its own budget shortfall from the state. It no longer can afford to broadcast several programs, including Spotlight on Seniors, which highlighted high-achieving 12th-graders from each school. Currently, only School Board meetings are airing regularly.
Most board members said they were willing to sacrifice some replays of their business meetings to revive Math Homework Hotline.
"I'd eliminate the School Board meetings altogether before I'd eliminate the Math Homework Hotline," said board member Candy Olson, after learning at a recent workshop that the district is paying about $250 per hour to broadcast the meetings live with two replays. "This is not the best use of our resources at this time."
The district's communications office is looking into what it would cost to produce Math Homework Hotline and pay for broadcast time. School officials expect to report back to the board early next year.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.