Driving through the steamy side streets of Dundalk last week, high school teachers Pat Zavetz and Fred Hammett were attempting to head off hundreds of teen-age nightmares.
Part of a volunteer team of educators from Dundalk High School, Zavetz and Hammett are conducting an outreach program unique in Maryland: meeting with incoming freshmen in their homes and establishing a rapport between school and student before classes start.
They sought to quiet the fears of high school that build during summer vacation, from dark tales of being force-fed drugs in a bathroom, to those devastating pimples or forgetting a locker combination. They also had a more serious mission: attacking the high dropout rate, bad grades and other problems affecting many eastern Baltimore County schools.
"At this point in their lives, kids are in a very awkward stage of development," said Lynn Linde, a guidance specialist with the state Department of Education. "There's no other program like Dundalk's, and we'd like to see other schools pick up the ball. It's a wonderful way to make kids feel invited."
To parent Teresa Cotton, the home visit provided school contacts, while allowing son Justin, 14, to better understand programs and when soccer tryouts will start.
"It really put him at ease," she said.
At Dundalk during the past school year, more than a quarter of XTC the 1,200 students were absent 20 days or more. More than 5 percent dropped out and nearly 20 percent moved into or out of the high school district.
Zavetz, who grew up in Dundalk and has been educating Eastside youngsters for 23 years, said: "I can't tell you how many times I've made trips to students' homes, got them out of bed and took them to school. Lateness and absenteeism are severe problems; we can't do our jobs if they are not there."
But Dundalk still has a stable core of concerned families, and one of the first stops for Zavetz and New York City native Hammett was the Hackett Avenue home of Joseph Rychwalski, 13.
The teachers answered questions and delivered an informational packet to the teen and his mother, Catherine Mayeski, during one of 370 visits they and other team members will make.
Rychwalski expressed a keen interest in computers. Confidently, he told the visitors he would like to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and is saving for space camp.
"And I'll tell you another thing," his mother said. "I've been a working mom, and it will be unacceptable for him not to get up and go to school. I go to work with a cold or other ailments and my children are expected to do the same."
At the end of the visit, Joseph and his mother were invited to an ice cream social for all freshmen and their families. They accepted enthusiastically.
In some homes, teachers find parents or guardians intimidated by education -- some never made it through high school. In others, such as one home in Turners Station, a woman raising her grandchildren had five pictures hanging prominently in the living room -- all high school graduation portraits.
Dundalk Principal Dwayne Johnson started the home visit program three years ago, after a suggestion from one of his assistant principals, Kathleen Sears.
"Kids make the transition from elementary school to middle school and to high school and are at high risk each of these critical times," Johnson said.
Moving to high school, students leave a sheltered area and enter a territory full of rumors and a learning environment where they face more responsibility and expectations.
Jeana DeNardo, Dundalk's senior class president and a National Honor Society member, had one overriding fear: "Everyone is scared coming into high school, but until I settled in, I thought I was going to get lost in the building every day."
Ryan Esposito, a senior and drum major in Dundalk's band, said, "The scariest part of it was the school was 10 times bigger than middle school. My older brother made the same change and didn't know what was going on. My parents were pretty impressed with the [home visit] program."
The visits also drew praise from state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who called them "absolutely wonderful."
Science teacher George Scheulen, a home visit team member, said ninth-graders must learn a valuable life lesson: adapt.
"They have to learn quickly that sometimes their teacher will tell them about an assignment only once in high school," he said.
But, he added, "They learn, too, that they can hit us up for lunch money and cry on our shoulder when they break up with their girlfriend. We're not so bad."
Pub Date: 8/06/96