Years after she’d thought her parenting days were behind her, Minneapolis retiree Sandra L. Smith got the news that her grown daughter in Ohio had been badly injured in an accident.
Ms. Smith found herself with custody of her granddaughter, Jonea, who was just entering 1st grade. She had to help the child cope not only with a new home but also a new school.
“It did change my world a great deal,” Ms. Smith recalled. “I was disabled when I got her, but I got into a routine of getting up early where I hadn’t before. I got involved more; I joined the PTA.”
Six years later, Jonea is entering 7th grade at Field Community School in Minneapolis come fall, and Ms. Smith has worked her way up to become co-chair of Field’s parent-teacher association and the diversity chair of the 6,000-member state PTA.
Statistics show that she’s one of thousands of grandparents who are becoming more involved, through necessity as well as interest, in their grandchildren’s education. Some experts predict grandparents’ increasing presence and the challenges they face could change the way schools and districts approach the basics of parent involvement, from enrolling children in school to making educational decisions and volunteering at school.
More than one-tenth of American children younger than 18 lived in a household with at least one grandparent at the time of Census interviews conducted in 2009, and the number of children living with grandparents instead of their parents has nearly doubled since 1991, according to a June report by the U.S. Census Bureau. Some 7.8 million children lived with at least one grandparent in the household as of 2009, up from 4.7 million in 1991, a 64 percent jump, and such children make up a larger share of the population as well.
Moreover, grandparents are, hands down, the most common child-care providers for families after parents, particularly for young children: As of 2005, the most recent data, grandparents cared for 13.8 percent of preschoolers—more than Head Start, day-care centers, and nursery schools combined. They also provided care for 12.8 percent of all school-age children ages 5 to 14. The Census Bureau found the average time children spent in their grandparents’ care also increased, from 13 hours a week in 2005 to 14 to 16 hours per week in 2006.
The Census Bureau found grandparents’ role particularly vital among families of color. In 2009, 9 percent of white children lived with a grandparent, compared with 14 percent of Hispanic and 17 percent of African-American children. Moreover, while about 2 percent of white and Hispanic children lived with a grandparent rather than a parent, 5 percent of black children did so.
“We have many more grandparents and relatives caring for children, including their educational needs,” said Cate Newbanks, the executive director of FACES of Virginia Families, a Richmond-based support and advocacy group for foster, adoptive, and kinship-based families.
“There is a whole younger generation of people taking care of their grandchildren now; we’re not all in our 80s,” said Ms. Newbanks, who cares for three grandchildren.
One of those grandparents is Molene Martin, 60, of the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. For more than seven years, she has been raising her four grandnieces, now ages 9 through 16, and recently her 15-year-old grandson came to live with her, too.
“My grandson just moved here from Pennsylvania, so I had to go and do the research on what school is best for him,” Ms. Martin said. “I want to know about test scores, I want to know what resources they provide, but if you don’t know to ask those questions, it’s not like they are just going to tell you. I know as a parent or grandparent you have to do the research yourself, but if you don’t know the right questions to ask, your child could be sent to the wrong school.”
Ms. Martin has become one of the founding members of the Baltimore-area Grandfamilies Parent Teacher Student Association, launched this May by longtime grandparent advocate Annette Saunders, a human-resources consultant for the Baltimore public schools. The group holds workshops and meetings for grandparents and parents on topics from how to navigate school system procedures and handle changing curricula to refreshing their own resumes. “We’re finding out grandparents are younger now than ever before, and they might need job skills; some of them may just be getting computer skills.” she said. “Our vision is to make sure every parent and grandparent can develop their leadership skills.”
Legal Barriers at School
Ms. Newbanks and other experts say grandparents often have trouble navigating education systems that are not set up to involve nontraditional families.
According to the Grandfamilies State Law and Policy Resource Center, an online partnership of the Casey Family Programs, the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, and Generations United, only 14 states allow grandparents without legal custody to enroll their grandchildren in school and participate in their education. They are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.
And only about 122,000 of the 2.5 million American children being raised by grandparents, as opposed to just living with them, are covered under the foster-care system, which would enable the grandparents to have temporary legal custody. In many cases, grandparents act as an informal alternative placement for parents and social workers alike.
In Virginia, as in many states, grandparents must prove that they have legal custody of a child to register him or her for school, a rule intended to prevent parents from shopping for different schools by using relatives’ addresses. While temporary custody can help a child get enrolled, it does not provide any rights for the grandparent to get involved in schooling.
The enrollment restrictions are intended to prevent cases like that of Akron, Ohio, mother Kelley Williams-Bolar, who used her father’s address to enroll her two daughters out of their neighborhood school and into a higher-performing suburban district. Ms. Williams-Bolar served nine days in jail for falsifying records and still faces additional probation time.
Moreover, federal and state privacy laws sharply limit what information schools can give out to relatives who are not a child’s legal guardians, and decades of intrafamily custody disputes have taught schools to be wary of allowing nonguardians to get involved in school.
“What happens for grandparents is if we don’t take legal custody of the children, it’s a privacy violation if [schools] even allow you to participate,” Ms. Newbanks said. “If the child needs special education, you can’t petition for those services; you can’t help plan for those; you can’t get any information on how the child is doing. They can’t do anything except allow you to bring the child to school.”
Michael Carter, the director of community engagement for the Baltimore district, said his office tries to work with grandparents who are in tricky custody situations. “When we know the child is living under that caregiver’s roof, we accord that person the same rights and support we would give any parent,” he said. “We’re not trying to put roadblocks in front of them.”
Mr. Carter noted, however, that families can be closemouthed about exact custody arrangements, particularly when a grandparent is caring for a child because the parents have personal or financial problems. “Families aren’t a lot of times willing to say, ‘I’m the grandparent raising my grandchild.’ Often they just say, ‘I’m the guardian; this is my child,’ ” he said.
FACES of Virginia Families has been lobbying the state legislature to allow grandparents to be considered guardians for educational purposes without requiring parents to give up custody of their children.
“Something has to be done to marry child welfare and education,” Ms. Newbanks said. “If we are going to try to keep families together, … we’ve got to come up with an approach that allows them to [stay together] without making it a tremendous burden.”
Beyond just allowing grandparents to participate in education, school and district administrators should rethink parent-involvement programs if they want to get grandparents engaged, according to Deborah M. Whitley, the director of the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and an associate professor of social work at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
“Sometimes we have grandparents near their 80s trying to take care of toddlers,” she said. “When you have those aging issues overlaid with trying to take care of the educational needs of the grandchildren, extra supports may be needed.”
The way a school frames its parent-involvement message can influence whether grandparents get involved, Ms. Whitley said. For example, many schools advertise “Grandparents Day” celebrations in September and October, she said, but those often focus on bringing grandparents in for lunch or a party, rather than discussing academic topics with them.
By contrast, she said, administrators often advertise teacher conferences and sessions on how to help with homework under the banner “Parents’ Day.”
“Grandparents may think, ‘Well, that’s not for us,’ where they may be more engaged if it was called ‘Family Day,’ ” she said.
Moreover, it can be difficult, Ms. Whitley said, for grandparents to articulate their grandchildren’s needs, particularly after a traumatic transition.
“When these grandparents were raising their own kids, they never had to have special services, and now they are in a position where their grandchildren may need special services,” she said. “Sometimes grandparents are totally unaware of anything in that realm; they don’t know what to ask for, or how to monitor what should be delivered to their grandchildren.”
Mr. Carter agreed, recalling a recent phone call with a great-grandmother trying to navigate school requirements. “They were simple to me, but to an 81-year-old raising a teenage great-granddaughter, there were things difficult for her,” he said. “I told her I would be her legs, I would do the legwork for her.”
Jonea’s grandmother, Ms. Smith, said she had private guides to getting involved at her granddaughter’s school.
“I had three sisters who were teachers, so they let me know how to navigate the system,” Ms. Smith said. “I went right away to connect with all her teachers, and I’ve stayed up on all of her classes and homework.”
Still, even Ms. Smith has struggled to get support from the school. After repeatedly trying and failing to reach the school social worker when Jonea began to struggle with depression and academic problems, Ms. Smith found an outside tutor and a state-supported therapist, she said. The latter identified the girl to be tested for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Baltimore’s Grandfamilies group holds training for grandparents on how to work with teachers and their students on academic issues, and Ms. Martin said she gets to know new teachers as quickly as she can. “When I first go in, they think I’m the grandmother, but now they just treat me like any other parent,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week