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When Grandparents Go Back to School

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When it comes to reading bedtime stories, few do it better than a loving grandparent. But, as many grandparents are finding out, the pleasures of an occasional weekend visit are far less taxing than the day-to-day demands of being a full-time parent.

More and more of the nation's senior citizens are stepping in as primary caregivers for their children's children and taking on the full-time responsibilities that come with parenting.

And the often difficult adjustment spills over into education.

"At first they're frightened because they don't know what goes on in schools anymore," said Lillian Brinkley, the principal of Willard Model Elementary School in Norfolk, Va. "We have to get them over these fears."

Nationwide, nearly 4 million children live in a household headed by a grandparent, according to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

And the number of grandparents who are primary caregivers will likely continue to increase, officials at the American Association of Retired Persons said. The Washington-based group, which provides retirement information, political advocacy, and other services for people 50 and older, started the Grandparent Information Center in 1993.

"Unless we can address the issues that force grandparents to step in, we expect it to grow," said Renee Woodworth, the coordinator for the center.

A recent AARP survey of 479 grandparents who used the center found that 44 percent assumed care for grandchildren because of substance-abuse problems by the children's parents. Child abuse was the second most common cause, at 28 percent.

Ms. Woodworth said that most grandparents call the center with legal questions, including queries about how to get grandchildren enrolled in schools when they do not have legal custody.

"The arrangement is often informal with their children, but schools want to see legal proof," she said. The center provides referrals to local agencies and support groups.

Academic Concerns

Schools and other groups also are stepping up efforts to give these grandparents a helping hand.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals recently released a 15-minute videotape, "The Apple of Your Eye," which gives grandparents tips on educating their grandchildren.

"There's a lot of common sense stuff on it," said June Million, a spokeswoman for the NAESP in Alexandria, Va. "We think reminding grandparents of this will help the kids."

But a recent survey of 450 elementary and middle school principals by the group found that just one in five respondents had outreach programs that target custodial grandparents.

Ms. Brinkley is one of the proactive principals: She offers workshops for about 30 grandparents raising students at her school.

She encourages them to join Seniors Offering Service, a volunteer program with 175 senior citizens who work in Willard Elementary School as tutors, aides, and activity leaders.

"Grandparents used to be part of the extended family, and today it's the opposite," said Ms. Brinkley, an educator for 37 years. "They take over as parents and don't have the support systems that their parents had."

Eunice Harps, 59, has put two granddaughters through Willard, and raised an 18-year-old grandson from birth who is now a freshman at Norfolk State University.

"It takes a lot of prayer and always doing things with them and getting to know teachers," Ms. Harps said. "These kids need some guidance from older people. I'd rather do it myself than some baby sitter."

But schools and custodial grandparents have an added challenge: making students comfortable with being raised by grandparents.

"The first thing kids have to get over is why they have grandparents and not parents," Ms. Brinkley added. "We want kids to know that as long as you have someone who truly cares about them, it's a parent."

Go directly to the next story in this series, "Crowded, Dilapidated Schools Lack Welcome Mat for Students," Oct. 2, 1996.


"Knocking at the Doors" was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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