Blame it on the economy, the two-income family, or a school system overloaded with mandates, today more kids than ever cannot read a newspaper or even write at their grade level. Each year, more and more of them give up on learning and resort to "at-risk" behavior as a means of obtaining surrogate social support from their peers.

Children who do not perform well in school usually dread classroom participation and their homework because the learning process has become a reminder of past failures. Most of these children never receive adequate and early encouragement, and many will pass from grade to grade stigmatized as underachievers, thus unworthy of a teacher's attention. Inevitably, this pattern can later prevent a child from joining the mainstream population. We call these children our academic refugees, innocent victims of an education system designed for mass production and grossly deficit in providing individual care and nurturing.

At Orange High School, an institution considered "average" among schools in this county, the Title One coordinator estimates that more than half of the student body falls into the "at risk" column. After five years of work with hundreds of students, we have learned that about half of all the students in Orange County are at least two grade levels behind in basic reading and writing skills. Most are three grades or more behind, and many come from families where English is the predominant language.

Bad grades don't necessarily make bad kids. However, bad grades can lead them to truancy, drugs, sex, gang activity, or worse. Our mission is to change the attitude these children have towards school. We encourage them to renew their interest in life - to find satisfaction from going to school and engaging the learning process.

By providing our tutoring programs off school campuses (a reminder of their earlier failure) we give students a neutral and caring environment from which they can re-establish academic interest and rediscover achievement and self-dependency. We work with teachers (often the Title One coordinator) to share progress information about the student and to maintain curricular relevance with the school program. We are establishing an academic partnership with Chapman University to help us fine-tune our tutoring methods and skill. With their guidance and that of other universities in the area, we will launch a five-year study of effective tutoring and mentoring methods culminating in the publication of a book that will help other volunteer tutors and mentors across the nation. Along the way, we will encourage literacy in our community and build enough Homework Houses so that every child in Orange County has access to free individualized tutoring and mentoring.

There is a bounty of services available for kids who have established a criminal record, or those who have learning disabilities. Homework House is for the academic refugees who have none of these problems, but are nevertheless, in dire need of help. Our belief is that through positive mentoring and directed instruction, we help at-risk students become productive citizens and meaningful contributors to our community. We want to engage this problem as quickly as possible, before more children really do give up.