Cynthia Brown-Thomas’s job requires her to rise before the sun. It pays a meager stipend of $2.65 an hour. An exhausting display of patience is a must.
She credits the job with saving her life.
The 64-year-old retiree, who has survived two heart surgeries, is one of more than 200 D.C. seniors from low-income households working as classroom grandparents in the city’s schools.
The job is an unexpected turn in her empty-nester life. Brown-Thomas assumed she was too old to work and only learned of the opportunity when she bumped into two women in her subsidized senior apartment building along the H Street NE corridor.
“They said they were going to work, and I said, ‘Nah, you’re too old to go to work,’ ” Brown-Thomas recalled. “Then I thought, this is something that I could do that could keep me alive.”
Four years after Brown-Thomas became a foster grandparent, the refrigerator in her one-bedroom apartment is adorned with a drawing from a boy in one of her classes — her favorite memento from her time in the classroom. She is pursuing credentials to work in early-childhood education and has learned education techniques that she can pass to her own grandchildren.
Brown-Thomas, who retired from local government, works with first- and second-graders at Wheatley Education Campus — an elementary and middle school in the same Northeast Washington neighborhood where she has lived her entire life.
She arrives at school about 8 a.m. wearing her blue Foster Grandparent apron. She sharpens pencils and arranges classroom materials, waiting for the children to arrive. Some of the children hug her, others whisper secrets in her ear. Throughout it all, her theatrical facial expressions and warm laughter fill the classroom, with Brown-Thomas treating the children more like her grandchildren than her students.
“How are you doing today, Grandma?” the children ask during a morning greeting activity.
“I’m a 10,” Brown-Thomas said. “Because I get to be here with all you children.”
Shenora Plenty, principal at Wheatley Education Campus, said the five grandparents at her school are critical to its success. Her only wish: that there were more of them.
Wheatley posted gains in the latest batch of standardized tests that students take, and Plenty said the grandparents played a role. When the students do individual work, the grandparents wander the classroom, helping students write their names and draw shapes.
“They literally are grandparents, so they assume that role when they walk into the classroom,” Plenty said. “It really reminds the children of their grandparents.”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Perry Stein