Northern Arizona University’s foster grandparent program helping to shape children for tomorrow

Flagstaff, AZ | Submitted by Erin Kruse

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For more than 50 years, the Foster Grandparent Program has engaged low-income older adults to assist youth in their educational journey. In the early years, participants might have been found holding babies in hospitals, but today, they’re more likely to be found in neighborhood schools, in classrooms from Head Start through third grade.

In Arizona, only two groups are administering the program – Northern Arizona University (NAU) and the Navajo Nation. NAU’s Civic Service Institute is finding, training and placing Foster Grandparents in Coconino, Maricopa, Mohave, Pima, Yavapai and Yuma Counties. The program is an ideal fit for NAU, which was home to a regional gerontology institute for years and has always had a strong focus on civic engagement.

NAU partners with school districts, and sometimes individual schools, to identify needs and educators who have the desire for a classroom volunteer. The Foster Grandparents are then placed in neighborhood schools where they can have the most impact. But that doesn’t happen until the “grandparents” have undergone extensive training. The pre-service orientation and minimum of 20 hours training covers everything from program policies to working with challenging behaviors and effective communication tips. And once the initial training is complete, volunteers continue to attend monthly in-service meetings and may even participate in trainings that are happening in their assigned school.

Foster Grandparents volunteer at least 15 hours per week in their assigned schools, with many serving far more. Based on that classroom’s unique needs, the volunteers might work directly with youth who have academic challenges or other needs that might benefit from one-on-one, ongoing support from a caring adult. They may also run small group activities focused on everything from phonics to counting. Their presence is a big boon to teachers, who face growing class sizes.

Beyond making a difference in the lives of children, these volunteers are also able to collect an hourly stipend and mileage reimbursements, along with supplemental insurance.

And it’s having a big impact. With more than 100 volunteers serving all over the state, the Foster Grandparents served nearly 700 youth last year in 70 locations. And the youth they interact with are reaping the benefits – 95 percent improved in academic performance and 100 percent grew their social development skills. Their presence, especially in Head Start settings, is helping to ensure that more youth are enrolled in quality early learning centers, a rate that the Arizona Education Progress Meter seeks to boost to 45 percent by 2030.

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