FOREST HILL -- Twice a week, Nancy Martin drives from her home here down a winding, rural county road to spend three hours teaching 15-year-old Cindy Cox her three R's, and a little more, at a house just outside Forest Hill.
Cindy is among 300 Harford County students whom Mrs. Martin and 64 others tutor under a program that sends teachers into homes and hospitals to help youngsters unable to attend regular classes.
Although their work has gone largely unnoticed, it is not unappreciated by scores of students, families and county school administrators. School officials say that home teachers often are the academic safety valve, the last chance before troubled students fall through the cracks.
"Home teachers are extremely important in the process for helping students who, for one reason or another, are not attending class," said Ray R. Keech, county school superintendent. "They serve hundreds of students every year."
Unlike many of the students in the program, Cindy is not pregnant, nor does she suffer from severe emotional problems or physical deformities. Instead, she is a precocious, freckle-faced teen-ager whose progressively worsening asthma forced her to miss 20 of the first 45 days of her freshman year at C. Milton Wright High School this fall.
The side effects from the seven different medicines doctors prescribed to control her malady caused Cindy to shake severely and lose sleep. It prevented her from attending classes, and she fell so far behind that her family requested a home teacher.
One day last week, Mrs. Martin patiently went over lessons in art and algebra with Cindy that were planned after consultations with her regular classroom teachers. Seated at the dining room table, the two established an easy rapport.
Mrs. Martin looked directly into her pupil's eyes and began a short quiz on polynomials and exponents, instinctively placing her hands over the answers in her teachers' edition.
Cindy started the quiz slowly, making some mistakes, thecorrecting them. Then with some gentle prodding from Mrs. Martin, she concentrated harder, gained confidence and completed the test.
"This is so much more enjoyable than the classroom," Mrs. Martin said later. "I'd never go back to the classroom. This is so much better."
Mrs. Martin, who left the classroom in 1980 to spend more time with her family, and other home and hospital teachers say they relish the one-on-one contact as well as the ability to be more creative.
"You have more leeway to be the type of teacher you want to be," she said. "When I was in the classroom, I felt like I had my hands tied behind my back and had my feet bound, and then was told to teach. At the time, I thought I was in prison."
Now that she's teaching in homes, she can use a videotape of "Death of a Salesman" for a drama lesson or television's noon news shows for a current events lesson.
She and other home teachers said most of their pupils respond to home instruction, often dramatically improving their grades.
Mrs. Martin's first home student was a sexually abused, 15-year-old girl whom she began teaching in a psychiatric ward. Six months later, the girl, who had always done poorly in school, was getting A's and B's. She eventually graduated from high school as an honor student.
"There's no place to hide," explained Mrs. Martin. "If there's a bad grade, I'll see it immediately. I get results. I demand results."
Still, there are also drawbacks.
Until last year, the pay in Harford County, at $9.50 an hour, ranked last in the state. Teachers, who sometimes face locked doors, tell of working in filthy or unsafe homes, often with students who have been neglected or abused.
"Teaching is almost impossible in some situations," said Carol Kehring, a home teacher for five years. "We teach in a lot of single-parent families [with] kids in jeopardy. Sometimes there is no food in the house and kids have been virtually abandoned. With one girl, she had so many problems that I just went inside and listened to her cry."
Mrs. Kehring, who has two children of her own, said it is difficult for home teachers to keep the emotional distance from their students that is necessary to avoid allowing their problems to affect the teachers' lives.
Two years ago, Mrs. Martin was teaching a pregnant 15-year-old whose older boyfriend moved in with the family.
"She was a good student. Her mother was supportive," the teacher recalled. "It was an ideal situation."
But the situation changed quickly when the boyfriend repeatedly abused and eventually killed the 6-week-old child. He was later convicted in the infant's death by a Harford Circuit Court jury and sentenced to prison.
"I was emotionally destroyed," said Mrs. Martin, who learned some of the details of the infant's death from sheriff's deputies who questioned her during their investigation.