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Problem: math // Solution: hot line

Math students, you can relax. The cavalry has arrived.

The Mathematics Homework Helpline, televised Wednesdays on The Education Channel, has started a new season.

Schools have only been in session a few weeks, but for some middle school students, the interactive Helpline has come along not a moment too soon.

"We have had kids calling us since the first day of school," said Lucy Griggs, program manager of The Education Channel.

For the third year, the popular show will sort through parallelograms and probabilities, distributive properties and coefficients _ all to save students and their parents from those nasty math panic attacks.

The show airs live from 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays and features three math teachers with decades of experience. The instructors do not do the homework, but take students _ step by step _ through the solution process. Students of all ages may call in, but the show targets middle-schoolers. "That's the time when mathematics problems have a little more difficulty," Griggs said. "Also, parents have more difficulty solving them."

The Helpline is popular because children can win prizes from show sponsors and because they can ask questions with some degree of anonymity. Callers use only their first names when phoning the station.

"I think it serves a great purpose," said Bill Jones, a Buchanan Junior High teacher who has been on the show since it began. "Nobody sees them. They figure if they mess up, nobody's going to know."

Last year, Helpline teachers fielded 13 to 18 calls a show, and Griggs said 77 public schools and 16 private institutions were represented in an estimated 700 calls. The lines were usually busy, she said, and the biggest fear was that those who needed help were not getting through.

"We've had third-graders, college students, parents and everything in between," she said. "We did find a handful of students who called every single show. ... I think some kids think it's really cool to hear themselves on TV."

Griggs said Jones and the two other teachers, Ardeth Arnold of Wilson Middle School and Baretta Wilson of Marshall Junior High, often stay after the program has ended to phone students whose particular poser was too lengthy or complex to be handled during the show. That's not a problem for anyone, Jones said, because the show is very rewarding for a teacher.

"Actually, it's become a great deal of fun," he said. "I get the impression we are talking to kids who otherwise wouldn't have someone available."

Jones said students can learn a lot about math simply by watching the show, but those who need more help should talk to their school about securing a tutor. He said students have two major problems when it comes to math: a lack of basic skills, and a belief, often fed by adults, that the subject is simply incomprehensible.

"A lot of it is coming from an exposure to different ones (parents) that talk negatively about it," he said. "A lot of parents come in and say, "Oh, I couldn't stand it.' " Jones said that's an open door for the kids to fail.

On another level, the language of math can throw a student into a panic long before the numerical effort begins.

"Basically, they don't pick up the vocabulary and they don't pick up the jargon," Jones said, but if you just try to get it down to their language, they understand.

A little understanding can change long-held attitudes, he said.

"If they can just work through a problem one time, and get excited a little bit, it might turn them around," he said. "It's like going out to eat and taking in a new kind of food. . . . It can turn you on to it."

The Mathematics Homework Helpline is televised from 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays on several cable channels. Students who do not have access to cable can get math help by calling the station during show hours at 254-2253. Stations airing the program in Hillsborough are:

Jones Intercable, Channel 20

Paragon Cable, Channel 16

Cablevision, Channel 43

Telesat, Channel 16