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Foster Grandparents get a reprieve from Pinellas School Board

Eula Thomas, 79, works with third-grader Reginald Jordan on a vocabulary lesson at Campbell Park Elementary. Thomas has worked there for years through the 29-year-old Foster Grandparents program.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Eula Thomas, 79, works with third-grader Reginald Jordan on a vocabulary lesson at Campbell Park Elementary. Thomas has worked there for years through the 29-year-old Foster Grandparents program.

ST. PETERSBURG

Picking up a brown crayon, Isaac Gipson writes his name in big, clear letters on a piece of paper.

The 5-year-old traces "I-S-A-A-C" two more times and proudly shows his work to "Grandma Lucy."

"Good job," Lucy McCaskill, 73, responds. "This is beautiful."

Isaac scoots off smiling.

Two months ago, the Campbell Park Elementary kindergartener didn't recognize his own printed name. Isaac's teacher credits his progress to McCaskill, a volunteer with the Pinellas County School District's Foster Grandparents program.

The one-on-one attention and the rapport have been crucial to Isaac's learning, said teacher Michelle Combs.

"It's not only a matter of skills but self-esteem," she said.

"Grandma Lucy" will get to stay in Combs' classroom, thanks to a Pinellas School Board vote Tuesday to preserve and fund the Foster Grandparents program at least until the end of the school year.

Budget cuts threatened the program, which hires low-income seniors to tutor and mentor at-risk children in the early elementary grades. The program has been in Pinellas schools for 29 years and traces its origins to President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society initiative.

The "grandparents" are paid $2.65 an hour. The district pays $1.41 of that; Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay Inc., which runs the effort, pays for the rest through fundraising. Total cost: $100,000.

The group has 30 seniors working in nine Pinellas schools, mostly in St. Petersburg.

Last year, as school district officials made sweeping changes to bus and class schedules to save millions, Foster Grandparents saw its funding cut from $40,000 to $30,000.

With the "grandparents" facing a cloudy future, teachers and students began writing letters to the School Board to try to save them.

Kindergarteners filled their letters with hearts and smiling stick figures next to the names of their "grandparents." Older students pleaded in neat handwriting. "If you take them from us we will fight intell we get them BACK!" wrote one, who signed the letter "Love, A Angry 5 th Grader."

Shortly after, teachers and students learned that Foster Grandparents had won a reprieve so the letters were never sent.

But Lesli Lucci, a third-grade teacher at Campbell Park, said she was upset about the prospect of losing her senior partner. She has worked with Eula Thomas, 79, for eight years.

"I could not do my job without her," Lucci said.

Last year, teachers with a foster grandparent in their classrooms reported that 90 percent or more of their students made improvement in goals such as reading comprehension, problem solving and motivation, according to a survey by Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay.

The "grandparents" move from one class to another, giving individual attention to selected students in reading and math. Just as important, they listen to the children.

"I'd read with them and then we'd talk. Some of it is mentoring, some of it teaching," said Ray Petren, 65, the program's sole male grandparent.

He volunteers at Lynch Elementary in St. Petersburg and can't imagine Foster Grandparents disappearing. "I don't know what I would do," said Petren. "This situation is ideal."

District administrators say they too want to keep "grandparents" like McCaskill, Thomas and Petren in classrooms.

The School Board renewed the $30,000 contract to continue the Foster Grandparents program until June 30. The district will pay for it with Title I dollars, federal money designated for schools with many low-income students.

"It's one of those things really small but really important," said Mary Conage, director of Title I.

The senior volunteers say they also appreciate having something meaningful to do and a schedule to look forward to every day.

"I wake up every morning at 5 a.m.," Thomas said. "I'm at the school before 8 a.m. from Monday to Friday."

Added Petren: "It's a big thing in my life and it makes me happy."

Fast Facts

The program

Volunteers from Pinellas' Foster Grandparents program work with students in the following elementary schools: Campbell Park, Melrose, Maximo, Lakewood, Fairmount Park, Blanton and Lynch, all in St. Petersburg, and at Gulfport and Pinellas Park.

For more information about the program, see seniorsinservice.org/index.htm.

Foster Grandparents get a reprieve from Pinellas School Board 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 4:30am]
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