Kids need love. Grandparents are good at giving it.
That’s why an army of them is being recruited by the superintendent of schools in Syracuse, New York, where too many students have been getting suspended and too few have been graduating.
Soon, a “foster grandparent” will be stationed in every first- and second-grade classroom in all 18 elementary schools in the city. Superintendent Sharon Contreras is hoping the volunteers will enable more kids to build “a positive connection with an adult in the school building,” which will in turn improve their attendance, behavior, and grades.
The national foster grandparent program, which is overseen and funded by the federal government, matches volunteers ages 55 and over with children who need a mentor, a tutor, or both. There have been foster grandparents in the Syracuse elementary schools for decades, but, until recently, their ranks were thin, as in most school systems.
So far, about 115 out of 131 first- and second-grade classrooms have been staffed, according to Beth O’Hara, the director of senior services for Peace Inc., which operates the foster grandparent program in Syracuse and is working with Contreras to expand its presence in the city’s schools.
Volunteers—who needn’t actually be grandparents, but who are usually called Grandma or Grandpa by the kids they’re working with—commit to spending at least 15 hours a week in the classroom to which they’re assigned, and they’re asked to serve for at least a year.
Though they receive a small stipend, “they’re not doing it for $53 a week,” O’Hara says. “They’re doing it because they want to make a difference.”
Steve Walker, 63, a retired pastor, is volunteering at Dr. King Elementary School under second-grade teacher Caitlin Melvin, and he helps out however she needs him to, he says. Often, that means keeping the kids in order so she can stay focused on instructing them.
“I say, ‘We’re called Team Melvin.’ [And] I’ve convinced them that when they mess up, they affect the whole team. So … if two or three of them mess up I say, ‘Guess what? Y’all messed it up for the whole team. So you guys don’t get recess.’”
But he always gives them a chance to earn it back, he says, and his first priority is to “show them love.”
“Because I know at home, a lot of them aren’t getting any love; they’re not receiving love. Some of them come to school so mad, so frustrated, and so angry. So when I see them I say ‘Good morning’ to them. I’ve taught them [that] when they walk in the classroom, as soon as they open the door, they are obligated to say ‘Good morning.’ So if they don’t, I make them go back out the door and come back in and say ‘Good morning.’”
Ann Calderone, 65, a retired library clerk who assists in a first-grade classroom at LeMoyne Elementary School, spent much of the fall providing one-on-one support to a recent immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The little girl couldn’t speak English well enough to work independently, and the teacher had 24 other kids to worry about, so “Granny Annie” sat with her for weeks and helped her along.
About 20,000 students attend the Syracuse public schools, about 80 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Roughly 20 percent receive special education services, and about 10 percent are refugees. The high school graduation rate is only about 60 percent.
O’Hara and her staff at Peace Inc. are in charge of recruiting, screening, training, and placing the volunteers, who then report directly to teachers.
The federal government is providing $400,000 annually for the expanded program, and the Syracuse Board of Education is kicking in $350,000 per year.
Most of that money goes toward compensating the volunteers, O’Hara says.