Seven-year-old Matthew Flaherty of Sylmar barely noticed the fanfare around him as city dignitaries and local business representatives officially opened the new homework center at the Los Angeles Public Library's West Valley Regional Branch.
While the adults nearby praised the fact that, with this new one, homework centers now exist in 30 of the library system's 60 branches, Matthew and his 9-year-old cousin, Ashley Torres, were busy doing math.
"Get the gem," Ashley instructed after watching Matthew decipher a math riddle leading a digital explorer closer to a cache of jewels in "Treasure Math Storm," an interactive program installed on one of the center's four new CD-ROM computers.
"You have to get the gem to go to the next screen," she explained. "After you answer the questions, you get to collect some money and tools."
The small crowd of children surrounding the computer terminals, mesmerized by the vibrant video game-like graphics and quirky music emanating from them, served as a promising illustration of what library officials hope will be a greater student presence in local libraries.
"About 44% of Los Angeles area students drop out of school," said Susan Goldberg Kent, the city librarian. "That's a very shocking statistic. What does it say about employment chances for these young people?
"Through resources like the homework centers, we hope to counter that trend. Some of these kids simply need a safe place to study."
Growing out of 1992 state grants awarded to the city to encourage at-risk students to improve their study habits, the homework centers have served as study cloisters for some youngsters and teen-agers easily distracted at home or afraid to stay on a campus after school.
Through additional funding from local businesses, their state-of-the-art computers and volunteer staff have helped students find new ways to tackle school assignments, library officials said.
With a combined grant of $45,000 from the Mattel Foundation and the William M. Keck Jr. Foundation, the West Valley Regional Branch homework center provides students with access to educational software in language skills, math, reading comprehension and geography. CD-ROM encyclopedias and a number of on-line directories are also available.
"All these things stimulate children's minds," said Sonia Flaherty, Matthew's mother. "They already know how to use computers so well. With so many new options to choose from, they'll be motivated to do other things besides just watching TV."
Library officials hope that any renewed enthusiasm for learning brought on by the homework centers will spill into other areas of the students' library experience.
"Kids are naturally drawn to the computers because their screens are so colorful and they make great sounds," said Ann Conner, the children's service coordinator for the library system. "As they wait to use them, hopefully they'll read and look at other things the library has to offer."