By Madelynn Coldiron
Most people who went to school 20 or more years ago know that education has changed, but don’t need to worry about concepts that have sprung up since then, such as proficiency or formative assessments or individual education plans, and on and on.
Not so for the Kentucky grandparents who are raising their school-age grandchildren.
“You just feel like you’re starting back at ground zero and you need any information, any support that you can get,” said Charlotte King, a single grandmother in Greenup County who is raising three grandchildren, all with special needs, between the ages of 6 and 10.
The grandparents in this situation often feel overwhelmed, said Amy Shaffer, coordinator of two family resource and youth services centers in Greenup County Schools. “We have all these great programs now – you have FRCs and YSCs, IEPs and 21st Century, 504 plans, but you have all of this lingo. And you have to have it, but when you have so much of it, it’s kind of overwhelming and hard to weed through.”
King attended the November meeting of Northeast Guardians as Parents Coalition, a support group formed by Greenup County Schools officials several years ago to help cut through the school jargon and provide support to these families. It since has expanded to include Boyd County. Each GAP session focuses on a different aspect of grandparents raising grandchildren, with expert speakers and trainers. Foster parents also are served, since their needs are similar.
Teresa Rayburn, family caregiver coordinator for FIVCO area development district, works with the GAP group and others. She estimates that 90 percent of the grandparents in her region who are raising their grandchildren are doing so because the parents are incarcerated or the children were removed from their home because of drugs. It’s usually devastating for the grandparents, she said, “because they have raised their family and they’re starting all over raising a second family, mostly on a fixed income.”
At the November GAP meeting, about 25 grandparents and foster parents heard tips on how to encourage their kids’ literacy skills and get them to do their homework, and got an overview of special education.
“You guys are the kids’ advocates in school” if they are having difficulties, Shaffer told them. She has firsthand experience through both her job and her role as a foster parent to four children.
The major issues for these children stem from their transition to a new home, said Tammy Steele, who coordinates services for homeless children for Greenup County Schools. Because many of them have not lived long-term with their grandparents, they are considered homeless by the federal government, which provides funding to school districts to serve them. Services also are provided through family resource and youth services centers and their community partners.
“The things that they are dealing with outside of the classroom make it hard for them to settle down and settle in and stay on task,” Steele said. “There are so many different facets of things they are dealing with that really affect their education focus.”
And the transition is not easy for the grandparents, either. The cherished role of doting grandparent must be exchanged for disciplinarian.
“I turned 60 in July, so it’s been a long time since I’ve done this,” King said. “You want to be a grandmother and have fun and you don’t want to have to teach these things all over again and be the disciplinarian, but you do.”
King praised the Russell Independent school district for the support she’s received there for herself and her grandkids. “The support I got from the school was tremendous all the way around,” she said.
Glenn and Alberta Stephens of Greenup County – who have cared for 28 foster children over 14 years – said the biggest issue their foster kids have faced in school is being accepted and not being labeled. “We’ve told them not to even say they are foster kids,” Alberta Stephens said.
Shaffer and Steele said the number of grandparents raising grandchildren is increasing, judging from the interest in the GAP group and Greenup County district numbers, which Steele called “alarming.”
“We have worked hard to try to educate the community about this growing trend and to let people know we have so many of these situations we are dealing with, and different ways they can help and to be there to aid the grandparents or guardians in these situations,” Steele said.
This demographic is here to stay, Shaffer added. “We have to no longer think about the typical family being a mom and dad and 2.5 kids. But grandma – could be grandma or aunt – and four kids. It seems to be the new direction and we need to support them; and I think acknowledging the struggles they go through is an important thing. If a school board member should happen to talk to a grandparent, acknowledge the job that they’re doing.”