Syracuse makes 'foster grandparents' central in improvement strategy

by George Basler

On Board Online • November 24, 2014

By George Basler
Special Correspondent

In Syracuse's Meachem Elementary School, almost all the second-graders in teacher Jon Lamon's classroom were attentive while he explained a math problem. But one was pouting and looking distracted.

Another adult in the classroom - Jean Rand - sprang into action. She pulled a chair over to quietly explain the lesson, offer some encouragement and get the boy back on task. Within a few minutes, he was back at work.

"He just needed a second chance," Rand said.

Rand, 65, is one of some 50 "foster grandparents" working in classrooms in the Syracuse City School District. All are at least 55 years old. They are part of the federal Foster Grandparent Program, which is administered by a government agency called the Corporation for National and Community Service.

The program isn't new, and foster grandparents have been working in Onondaga County since 1972. But the Syracuse school board recently approved placing a foster grandparent in all 131 first- and second-grade classrooms in the district. Syracuse is the first district in the state to plan such an expansion.

The board has committed $350,000 in district funds. Each grandparent will commit to working 20 hours a week and receive a stipend of $2.65 an hour.

The idea came from Superintendent Sharon Contreras. The grandparents "don't necessarily bring anything that a teacher cannot bring to a classroom, but they add support with a more grandfatherly or grandmotherly approach," she said. Some younger students needed guidance, not necessarily for academic development, but for social skills and work habits, according to Contreras.

The district also is using bilingual foster grandparents to help English language learners.

The growth is taking place gradually as PEACE Inc. , a community service agency, recruits, screens and provides 20 hours of training for each new helper. The agency plans to add 50 grandparents by late February and have the rest in place by the start of the next school year, at the latest.

Officials call the program a winning one for everyone involved. The program enables the seniors to stay active, earn some extra money and do meaningful work, said Elizabeth O'Hara of PEACE Inc. And students will get some one-to-one attention from a caring adult who can serve as a role model and mentor, Contreras said.

Contreras said she has heard nothing but positive comments. After the board approved the expansion, however, postings on a Facebook site were mixed, with some questioning the expense and qualifications of the "grandparents."

"Pretty sad when you have to hire someone to act as a parent," one person wrote.

The grandparents support instruction by reinforcing lessons and providing extra help, noted Melissa Evans, principal at Meachem Elementary where Rand works.

Evans, who has been principal at Meachem for four years, feels the program has proven its worth. "We want kids to have direct support, and this is direct support. What is a better use of money?" she asked. The school has six foster grandparents and wants three more.

Rand, who has worked as a foster grandparent for three years, began the job after moving to Syracuse to be near her daughter, who is a professor at Syracuse University. Her background includes teaching and working with at-risk youngsters. She also ran a cattle ranch in northern Idaho for three years. "I enjoy working with kids," she said.

At Meachem, Rand works under the direction of a teacher to provide extra help to students. That includes going over lessons, reading with them and giving a little extra push to youngsters who are not engaged in a lesson.

The best part is "observing children feel successful, seeing the light come on in their eyes. You feel you've achieved something," Rand said.

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