Grandparents helping in the classroom

They're grandmas and grandpas. People who lived through the civil rights movement or World War II. In a surge of interest across the US, older Americans are bringing their experience to public classrooms, and kids are responding. With needs in both age groups, this trend has tremendous potential.

By 2020, the number of US residents 65 or older will have increased by more than half - from 35 million today to an estimated 54 million. Attached to that growth are concerns about healthcare costs and the desire of seniors to keep active and alert.

At the same time, academic and behavioral problems among students, especially in urban public schools, have led to such major initiatives as the controversial federal No Child Left Behind law.

But poke around a school library or classroom. When senior/child matchmaking is administered well, it's hard to find much controversy in it.

Studies show mutual benefits, with Baltimore a recent example. There, the nationwide nonprofit Experience Corps has been training older people to help urban, public elementary schools improve student literacy and behavior - areas identified by principals as unmet needs.

The seniors put in a minimum of 15 hours a week over three or four days, working one-on-one with students or with small groups selected by teachers. The volunteers receive a stipend of $150 to $200 a month for expenses. A necessary part of the program is that each school receives a critical mass of volunteers.

Over the 1999-2000 academic year, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health studied 1,194 children in grades K-3 from six urban schools in the program. They found the volunteers - mostly African-Americans aged 60 to 86 - increased their physical, cognitive, and social activity compared to a control group not in the program.

Those weren't the reasons the volunteers took part - most of them just loved children and wanted to help. But the researchers noted improvements in well-being: a greater drop in the use of canes, fewer falls, and much less TV watching compared to the control group. And the participants felt satisfied reading with kids, helping them select books or solve disputes - 80 percent returned to the program.

The kids also showed gains. Third-grade children in the program had significantly higher reading scores than their peers in the control schools, and far fewer misbehavior referrals to the principal's office. Not all teachers are keen to have outsiders in their classrooms, but the vast majority of teachers in both groups liked the idea of help in the classroom.

Such a program does not come cheap: $3,613 per volunteer per year. But if only 12 students who would not have graduated do eventually graduate, it's cost-effective, according to the Hopkins study.

The largest nonprofit program pairing seniors with public schools in the nation, Experience Corps is atypical. Most such efforts are local, and can't put as much into training or follow-up studies. Even so, the Corps only has 2,000-odd volunteers in 14 cities, more than double the number of volunteers from two years ago. As the Hopkins study shows, the potential for such a well-executed program is huge. Policymakers take note.

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