Grandparents get involved and make a difference at a city school
It's lunchtime at Pimlico Elementary and Middle School, and a celebration is underway. The song "Cupid Shuffle" is playing and people are dancing--but it's not students who are stepping to the right, to the left, and then kicking out their heels. It's a group of 20 older individuals, dressed in gold and white, who are putting on the performance.
The dancers are part of the Pimlico Grandparents' Club, a volunteer organization whose members help out around the school, acting as hall monitors, supervising on field trips, and maintaining an active presence on the school grounds. The club was established in 1997 by former school principal Sarah Horsey. Its members perform duties that, traditionally, might have been handled by parents.
"We discovered that many grandparents [in the area] were raising their grandkids," says 56-year-old Orlesia Dupree, a founding member of the club. Though the club was originally started with grandparents who had legal custody of their grandchildren in mind, it soon opened its membership to any grandparents interested in helping out at the school. Rosella Pinkney, the 69-year-old secretary of the Pimlico Grandparents' Club and its first president, estimates that currently 18 of its 24 members are taking care of their grandchildren full-time.
"I would guess at least 20 to 30 percent of the grandparents in Baltimore are raising their grandkids. It may even be higher," says Erin Collick of Baltimore City Caregivers, a nonprofit organization that funnels grant money to those who take care of older parents or much younger relatives. "A lot of the parents [of school-age children] are getting younger. We have a lot of teenage parents from about 14 to 19 years old."
When Horsey took over Pimlico in Sept. 1996, it was "a failing school," she says. Its low test scores had just landed it among a number of Baltimore City schools slated for "reconstitution" status, wherein the state intervened in the running of the school, including possibly replacing staff. Pimlico Elementary had also been designated a Title 1 school. Title 1 is the largest federally financed education program in the nation, and it provides additional educational funding to schools in neighborhoods where a significant proportion of households fall below a certain income level, based on enrollment and eligibility for free-lunch programs. (During the 2009-2010 academic year, 140 of 201 Baltimore City public schools qualified for some form of Title 1 funding.)
"I found a correlation between Title 1 schools and the number of grandparents raising grandchildren," Horsey says. "In many instances, Title 1 suggested to me low-income and getting food stamps, and I found that there were a higher number of grandparents raising children in an environment like that."
Horsey eventually asked the grandparents of her students who were willing and able to participate to attend a series of workshops on nutrition, discipline, exercise, and cultural awareness. "The more they're exposed to, the more they'll expose their grandchildren," she explains. That was the beginning of the Grandparents' Club, the first of its kind in Baltimore City schools.
Horsey says that the change at Pimlico from before the Grandparents' Club existed to when she left in 2000 was monumental. "The [initial] test scores were 3 percent, meaning 3 percent of the children were passing the state test at that time, and we moved from 3 percent to 50 percent [over a four-year period]. The grandparents were helping the children with homework."
Pimlico emerged from reconstitution status in 2000, "[one of] the first elementary schools to lose reconstitution status in the state of Maryland, and that was as a result of having grandparents actively engaged," Horsey says. She left Pimlico to retire, but soon returned to take over as principal at Montebello Elementary, another Title 1 school that was also under state reconstitution status. Among the first things she did, she says, was survey the surrounding community and start a Grandparents' Club.
Horsey says she's observed that some younger administrators find grandparent activity in the schools intrusive, but feels such attitudes are misguided. By taking the time to train the grandparents in how to work best with the school and how to communicate effectively with students and staff, administrators gain a vital resource and can only help their schools and their communities.
The grandparents' involvement has a positive influence on far more than test scores at Pimlico. At Horsey's request, members of the Grandparents' Club walking their grandchildren to school in the mornings stopped by the houses of students with truancy problems. If the grandparents noticed that a child had been absent for a while, they would call his or her house. Members of the club would position themselves at key areas throughout the community at dismissal time to help the students stay out of trouble. "It was a drug-infested community," Horsey recalls. "When [the students] saw the grandparents they knew they were safe."
Pinkney says that sometimes the school needs the grandparents' administrative help because there just isn't enough money in the budget. "We work in the office, in the cafeteria, we help with tests, we proctor in classrooms, anything they need us to do," says Ruth Lamback, 72 and a founding member of the Pimlico Grandparents' Club. "We go on trips with the children because parents can't. We have a clothes bank."
Current President Donnie Greene, age 75, says the club sometimes works with teachers and administrators on projects that take them out into the community. For instance, the club has provided assistance to area families whose utilities are turned off. "It's a neighborhood that doesn't have a lot of access to finances," Pinkney says of the club's extracurricular pursuits. "[We] have to be careful of going into other people's homes, but we will go and find out if they have food to eat and if we need to get a social worker."
At least two Grandparents' Club volunteers are present in the buildings at all times, monitoring hallways and looking after students who arrive late. Over the 13 years since the club was founded, they've become a significant component of the school's identity. "Pimlico always gets a bad rap," Pinkney says. "We just want to show that we care, and it's not all bad."
"They add that family spirit to the school that a lot of schools don't have," Elneeta Jones, Pimlico's current principal, says.
This sentiment is reflected in the Grandparents' Day celebrations. Dressed in formal attire, each club member comes dancing down the aisles of the auditorium before filing onto the stage. Pinkney delivers an account of the history of the Pimlico Grandparents' Club. The ceremony includes songs, comedy, short speeches, and remembrances of the deceased.
Students take part in the day too. A newly formed Pimlico Dance Group performs two numbers for the Grandparents' Club. "The dancers wanted to say we appreciate you," 13-year-old Marquise Grayson says.
Although many of the volunteers have grandchildren and even great-grandchildren in the school, some, like Pinkney, do not. Her grandson graduated several years ago, but she continues to devote time and effort to the Pimlico Grandparents' Club.
"We live in the area and want our kids to get the right type of education and the right discipline," she says. "And to teach them to respect older people."
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