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learning COMES WITH comfort

Teacher Dave Hodge awakes every morning knowing that the lesson plans he prepared the previous night will probably be forgotten in the midst of his students' life and death worries.

Hodge, 34, must conduct his classes flexibly because the students often have concerns other than schoolwork on their minds. Some slump down in their chairs, thinking about the beating they received the night before from an abusive parent. Others gaze out the large classroom windows, dreaming of a better life where their fathers loved their mothers.

Hodge teaches kindergarten through high school students at an alternative education school on the grounds of The Spring of Tampa Bay Inc., a domestic violence shelter. For 10 years the Hillsborough County public school has been available to temporary residents of The Spring. It was the first shelter in the country to have a public school on its grounds, said Mabel Bexley, executive director of the shelter.

"Before we had the school here, all fathers had to do was call around to schools to find their kids and take them away," said Bexley, who has worked at the shelter for 12 years. "Finally we said, "Wait, this isn't the way life should be lived for these kids.' By having the school here, we've taken away that danger and the fear that kids will be taken back by an abusive spouse. We want moms to know that they don't have to hold on to an abusive situation just to keep their kids in school."

Hodge conducts class weekdays from 8:40 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in a converted garage with adjoining rooms. About 20 children attend the school for one day or a whole school year, depending on how long their parent needs to stay at The Spring. Students are separated by skill level more often than by age into three separate rooms where Hodge and two assistant teachers work with the children at their own pace.

Math and reading are usually taught separately to students in the three skill levels; the classes merge to learn about social studies, science, music and art. Often a math lesson that begins to lose the students' attention transforms into an English lesson. It can vary each day, depending on the students' needs. What the children often need is the empathy and male role model that Hodge has provided for the last eight years. Unlike regular classrooms, The Spring school curriculum allows for a sharing time when the children can talk about their concerns.

"What this is all about is attention," Hodge said. "In the mornings, we talk about the weekend or what they did the night before. We let (the students) know that we try to empathize with them. We understand when it's hard for them to keep on track of every lesson all of the time."

Recently, Hodge conducted a round-robin reading lesson with a group of nine students ages 8 to 14. Each student read aloud from a story when called upon while the other students helped with tricky words. After reading, the students shyly looked up at Hodge to bask in the pleasure of his approval and praise.

"You have to know how to be nice and set the right pace for these kids," Hodge said. "You can't be a strong disciplinarian with them. That's not what they need."

Hodge rewards good behavior with popcorn and movies for the class and tickets that can be used to purchase toys and games in a "store" at the shelter. He also takes students who have behaved on field trips once a week. The big rule at the shelter school is "no hitting," and anyone who violates this rule loses all privileges for that week.

In another room, a group of five children ages 5 to 7 learned to spell through Word Bingo. And in a third room, two girls in high school worked independently on literature lessons. The school doesn't get many high school students, but when one enrolls, Hodge goes with the student to their previous school to talk to each teacher about what the student should be studying. Many high school students also visit their original schools once a week to keep up with homework from their various classes.

The children are tested when they get to The Spring school, and most are several grade levels behind where they are expected to be. The students generally have been absent several weeks from their previous schools, but often gain up to three grade levels during only a couple of months at The Spring school, which runs through the summer for students who want to attend.

"This just shows these kids can be very productive," Bexley said. "They just had a burden before and couldn't concentrate."

"These kids aren't dumb, they've just been neglected," Hodge said. "When you have problems at home, school isn't on the top of your priority list. After they miss a couple of lessons in school, they fall behind and have a hard time picking up the next lesson. The one-on-one attention we can give here is sometimes all they need to go beyond what's expected of them."


For more information on The Spring of Tampa Bay Inc., call 247-7233.