By Dan Silverman, Lauren Walsh and Andrew Morris SYRACUSE (NCC News) — The elderly woman in Walmart was on her weekly grocery trip. She turned to walk to the front toward the checkout lanes, but first heard the happy squeal of a young boy saying, “Mommy, there’s Grandma Janet!” From behind, the woman felt pleased to see not one of her biological grandchildren, but one of her regular school day foster grandkids.
The son then introduced his mom to Grandma Janet, but the mom already knew who the shopper was. She had of course already heard all the good things her son had to say about his foster grandparent at school.
Santa Claus isn’t the only one with helpers this winter. The Syracuse City School District (SCSD) has some helpers of its own, but under the category of foster grandparents instead of elves.
The SCSD is starting to implement a foster grandparent program that integrates grandparents in first and second grade classrooms as helpers and facilitators. The program, brought to Syracuse by PEACE Inc., a non-profit community service organization, is volunteer-based and allows senior citizens with limited income to act as role models for young students who need extra care and attention.
The district currently has foster grandparents in 50 classrooms. The program’s staff aims to put foster grandparents in classrooms to share their knowledge and skills with the children with the incentive of improving grades and overall behavior.
According to program director Beth O’Hara, many schools have already experienced improvements, in particular Huntington PreK-8 School on the North Side. Grandparents are in kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. every school day.
Principal Joanne Harlow described the grandparents as an integral addition to the classroom as they help teachers provide instruction.
“Particularly, with the kindergarteners and first graders, [foster grandparents] will sit with them and help them with reading, sounding out letters and help them with their numbers,” said Harlow. “They really are a huge asset to the classroom.”
According to Harlow, the foster grandparents also sit with the children during non-instructional activities such as snack time, lunch or special activities.
“They develop relationships very quickly with the students,” Harlow said.
One foster grandparent who had no problem developing a relationship with the children is Janet Fureno, 74, a bright-eyed and enthusiastic woman otherwise known as Grandma Janet. A seven-year pioneer of the program, Fureno started off in East Syracuse Elementary School six years ago.
“Well I had never done it before because I worked in a nursing home all my life, so I went from one extreme when I retired to another,” said Fureno. “And I love this.”
Fureno stayed at home for a period of time caring for her mother after leaving the nursing home, but felt compelled to get a job and work again. She described the foster grandparents program as an ideal job for her as it is laid back and she gets to be around the children, her favorite part.
The grandparents receive a small wage of $2.65 per hour, but Fureno has more important incentives driving her to come to work every day.
“It’s not the money that keeps you here, it’s the kids,” said Fureno. “They keep me going. If I didn’t have to get up and go to school I’d still be in bed sleeping.”
Fellow foster grandparent Ruby Gilbert, 55, was recently trained by Fureno and feels a similar passion for working with the children.
“When I get up in the morning, I feel so good and just think about all the kids and how happy they make me,” Gilbert said.
She has 15 grandchildren of her own, but that wasn’t enough. Gilbert worked in home care in the past, giving her a nurturing quality that the children gravitate towards. She said all the kids took to her quickly, and, by the end of the day, were asking if she would be back tomorrow.
Even though the grandparents share many heartwarming moments with the children, it’s not all smooth sailing working with large groups of kids. The grandparents work with both individual students and groups of students at the discretion of the teacher.
“Attention is the biggest challenge,” said Fureno, in reference to dealing with an unruly student. “He’ll hit the table, kick the chair and get up and leave the room any time he wants to.”
In addition to disruptive behavior, according to Fureno, some students lack a sense of morals and respect that were crucial to any school atmosphere when she grew up. Some students were not familiar with table etiquette or basic, polite salutations that they have now mastered as a result of Fureno’s guidance, she said.
Fureno uses this same kind of discipline in aiding the children with their school work, especially the more difficult topics like counting money and telling time.
“Be stern,” said Fureno. “That’s my job to help them get it, and I’ll stay here until they get it.”
Aside from potential confusion with the material being taught, the children are occasionally confused by the fact that they are told to refer to the foster grandparents with the title, “grandma” or “grandpa.” Fureno said that she must not forget that the students may have their own biological grandparents, and respect that. Some parents have rejected the idea of referring to the foster grandparents with the title.
The children, however, embrace the title, frequently asking to work or read with “Grandma Janet,” said Huntington teaching assistant Mary K. Larson. Larson frequently sees the grandparents and children interacting jubilantly with high fives and hugs, and knows this is due to the enthusiastic personalities of the grandparents. Although program administrators are looking to expand the program, Larson highlighted the importance of finding qualified and capable grandparents to carry on these positive instances.
The SCSD plans to continue working with PEACE Inc. to have 100 more grandparents signed up by January to fill 131 classrooms, said Beth O’Hara, who also serves as director of senior services at PEACE Inc. All prospective grandparents will be required to go through the same process as Gilbert and Fureno, consisting of background checks, fingerprints, and four days of training, Fureno said.
Principal Harlow said that PEACE Inc. has provided significant guidance and help with the program including visits to ensure the effectiveness of the grandparents in the classrooms. However, the organization has been very specific about restricting the program to specific grade levels (K-2nd) as of now.
O’Hara also said she is optimistic about the future of the program as one that empowers senior citizens to get involved in the community not only now, but also in the future by having positive impacts on the children.
“[Foster grandparents] are there to help the children score well on New York state standardized tests, get to high school on time, and graduate on time,” O’Hara said.
While this might be difficult for the children, it has been at times for the foster grandparents as well, who need to be well-prepared to help teach the children.
“I had to learn the new math,” Fureno said.
Even with some of these bumps in the road along the way, at the end of the day, Fureno says her job is very simple.
“All we have to do is walk in the room,” she said. “Not me as Janet, me as a foster grandparent.”