On Wednesday, second-grader Koran Bright whispers to Cynthia Brown-Thomas, a foster grandparent at Wheatley Education Campus. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

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.


Cassandra Reid helps second-grader Eric Hill with his class work on Wednesday at Wheatley Education Campus. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

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.”

The grandparents know to go to distracted children and provide them with attention, hoping to keep the entire class on track.

Many students at Wheatley Education Campus have young parents and grandparents at home, according to the principal, and benefit from having older role models.

“She gives you jelly beans,” said Zariah Brunson, a second-grader who has Brown-Thomas as a foster grandparent.

“She helps us with our homework,” said Courtney Richardson, another second-grader.

Born out of the 1964 federal War on Poverty legislation, the Foster Grandparent Program aims to give seniors across the country a purpose in retirement by providing some of the neediest children with mentors and giving teachers help in the classroom. The grandparents choose their hours, most working 15 to 30 a week.

The United Planning Organization, a community agency founded in 1962 to bring programs to the District’s low-income residents, operates the $1.2 million Foster Grandparent Program, which receives federal funding.

Cheryl Christmas, director of the United Planning Organization’s grandparent program, said it is intended to keep residents older than 55 connected to their communities.

Grandparents, who range from 55 to 93 years old, are assigned to schools or day-care centers — and a few to children’s hospitals — in their communities so that they have the potential to run into their students at the corner store. If grandparents perceive that a child isn’t reading at home, they are trained to pick a street that they are both familiar with and to ask the child report back about what a sign says, or with how many times the student encountered a letter.

While the program reimburses travel expenses, the hope is to encourage seniors who can to walk to school in the mornings and afternoons.

“We’re wrapping our arms around them,” Christmas said. “It’s an outgrowth of how we used to treat teachers — like preachers.”

Before first entering the classroom, the grandparents attend a training session to prepare them to work with children and to recognize signs that a child may be upset or stressed.

Christmas said the small stipend given to foster grandparents provides extra spending money but isn’t enough to threaten their ability to qualify for many of the government benefits they rely on. Brown-Thomas said her stipend allows her to travel to Houston to visit her daughter and young grandson.

The program requires participants to have a physical each year, and Christmas said the initiative will cover costs for those who can’t afford it. Christmas said the physicals have discovered ailments that would have otherwise gone undetected.

Cassandra Reid, a foster grandparent who works part time at another job, said working with the children has reinvigorated her. She loves running around on the playground with the preschoolers she’s assigned to.

In the classroom, she can be found sitting on the floor with students or helping them at their desks with work sheets.

“Oh, don’t cry, baby,” Reid tells one preschooler who is upset because her teacher didn’t call on her.

“Grandma, can you help me?” another student struggling with writing her name asks Reid.

But her favorite part of the day happens before she even enters the classroom.

“When I walk through the hall and the kids run up to me and call me grandma,” said Reid, “it’s a big balloon of joy.”

perry.stein@washpost.com