Lake County’s Foster Grandparent program helps students catch up academically
When Humboldt County resident Susan Nessen retired from the postal service nineteen years ago, she looked forward to leading a laid-back life.
"I'd always worked and I finally had time for other things,“ she said, "So I painted a couple of bedrooms and did some landscaping around the house, that kind of thing. And then one day I remember standing outside and thinking: This is retirement? Ew."
Not one to waste time, Nessen was soon on the lookout for something new to do that would be fun, interesting and — most important — beneficial to others.
"I'd always enjoyed being around children," she said, "so I thought I'd see about volunteering at a school."
Not before long she was a volunteer teacher's helper in a first grade class at Rio Dell's Eagle Prairie Elementary School in Humboldt County.
Seventeen years later, now 75, Nessen's still at it and going strong. She's had a long enough run that this year one of the earliest students she worked with has returned to the school as a kindergarden teacher.
"That is just so rewarding," she said.
Nessen is a member of the AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program, which sends volunteers 55 and older to serve in local school classrooms nationwide as tutors and one-on-one mentors. The largely government-funded program was established in 1965 under the Johnson administration as a way to encourage low-income older adult citizens to engage in community service while earning a small stipend.
The five North Bay counties — Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma — have joined together to create a thriving Foster Grandparent Program. Each county has a lead coordinator, with the entire joint program managed by North Coast Opportunities, the region's Community Action Agency.
The north bay program dates back to 1973, when Mendocino County became the first county in the region to launch a Foster Grandparent Program. Sonoma County, the coalition's newest member, is just getting its program off the ground.
The five counties combined have 52 volunteer grandparents who, together, contribute between 35,000 and 50,000 hours of service yearly to students ranging from pre-school through high school. Those numbers are expected to rise in the future as Sonoma County's grandparent ranks begin to fill.
Decline in educational scores
"It's such an effective program," said Monica Vanoven, who oversees the Foster Grandparent Program for North Coast Opportunities Volunteer Network. "In a class of thirty kids, teachers just don't have time to work one-on-one with students who need extra help. The way the program works is that teachers assign specific children, those who need special attention, to foster grandparents. They then work with the kids, which is hugely important in developing a child's abilities."
That's particularly true now, when multiple studies indicate that COVID-19 has disrupted education, including school closures and remote learning, which have affected student learning nationwide. The latest study, released in October by the National Center for Education Statistics, indicated that average 2022 scores nationwide for 9-year-old students declined 5 points in reading and 7 points in mathematics compared to 2020.
That's the largest score decline in reading since 1990 — and the first ever decline in mathematics.
"It's not just children's academic growth that's been affected," said Maureen Conway, 75, a foster grandmother for the last five years at Lakeport Elementary School in Lake County.
"Their social skills haven't developed the way they should, either,“ she said. ”They weren't in school for a long time, and when they came back they were wearing masks, couldn't play games with any physical contact, and missing out on a variety of other things that promote the learning of social skills.“
Foster grandparents help kids
Conway feels that present-day third-graders have been penalized the most. Many of the same kindergarteners she mentored before the coronavirus pandemic she now works with in a third grade class.
"Those kids missed out on the years when they learn the most — first grade, second grade, grabbing hold of those basic math and reading skills," she said. "It's going to take a long time for them to catch up."
One of the children she works with these days is 8-year-old Abbie Sabol. Like many kids who spent the previous two school years class-Zooming instead of class-rooming, Sabol is working hard to catch up to traditional third-grade academic levels.
"Abbie's a little behind academically," said Conway. "She's eager to learn, though, and she doesn't give up. She's right in there, doing her best. Just in the short time I've worked with her, I've seen an improvement. She really wants to learn."