Poring over a textbook, 10-year-old Robert Macksoud helped a dyslexic friend work through a reading assignment during a recent after-school class at a Garden Grove community center.
Unlike the six other youngsters in the literacy program, Robert is often an A student and has no learning disabilities. What the bright, hazel-eyed boy does have in common with his companions is that none of them live with their parents.
He and the others who attend the twice-weekly reading classes are among an estimated 4 million children nationwide who are being reared by their grandparents because their parents have died, abandoned them or been caught up in crime or drug abuse.
"We've lost a portion of a generation of parents," said Irene Koontz, 56, Robert's grandmother and director of the nonprofit Garden Grove center HUG--Hearts United: Grandparents raising grandchildren.
The center, which Koontz founded in 1991, offers support groups, counseling services and the literacy classes that Robert attends while Koontz works.
Experts say that an increasing number of older people, many on fixed incomes and with health problems, are seeking help from community programs like HUG, often on referrals from public school officials.
Schools often are grandparents' first source for guidance, though administrators ruefully admit that they are unequipped to address either the seniors' needs or the growing population of students from troubled families.
"These grandparents do rely on us," said Sandra Robertson, a counselor at Brookhurst Junior High School in Anaheim. "But some of these students have serious social problems. We can only serve them by referring them to outside agencies."
According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, 3.97 million minors were being reared by their grandparents in 1995, the latest year for which statistics are available. That is an increase of 20%--roughly 800,000 children--since 1990.
In a survey of 27,000 school principals nationwide, 87% of the 450 respondents said they have seen a marked increase in the past 10 years in the number of students being reared primarily by grandparents, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
"This issue has grown enough that we probably have to address it," said John Blaydes, principal of McGaugh Elementary School in Seal Beach.
"It's no longer uncommon to see grandparents picking up their grandchildren from school or older faces at parent education nights," he said. "You used to see more of this in the inner cities, but it's very much happening in suburbia as well."
Blaydes said he is pushing for on-site counseling and support services to help grandparents, who may be struggling with issues such as how to find affordable medical insurance for the youngsters and how to gain legal custody of them.
But the process is slow, he said, because schools are already dealing with limited budgets while tackling issues such as overcrowding and campus safety.
In the meantime, educators' only recourse is to refer the grandparents to programs like HUG and the Center for Creative Alternatives, a nonprofit group that trains and provides counselors at schools and off-campus centers around Orange County.
In the past, interns at the center were typically only briefed on the problems of grandparent-headed households. In the past four years, however, the center has begun offering a full course on the topic.
"We've found that this is becoming a growing phenomenon, even an epidemic for the children involved," said Alan Hershaft, the center's executive director. "Many of them come from violent families, or parents with drug or alcohol problems."
Educators say they would like to become more involved in helping grandparents, for the dysfunctions in a child's home life often show up at school.
Research by the National Health and Education Consortium indicates that a majority of children from broken homes suffer from limited cognitive development and psychological and physiological disturbances, and are unable to form close attachments.
Robert, for instance, often makes the honor roll at Tamura Elementary in Fountain Valley, but he has sudden outbursts that disrupt the classroom.
"He's so smart, but he can be so defiant," said his grandmother, Koontz. "He gets it from his father, who grew up trying to break the system" and has served time in prison on drug convictions.
Another familiar face at HUG is that of Jeri James, who has been caring for her 9-year-old granddaughter since the girl was born. The child's mother died of a drug overdose in May at the age of 33.
James and her granddaughter, a fifth-grader, live on James' monthly income of $623 from Social Security and Aid to Families With Dependent Children. James said she struggles but gets encouragement from a support network that includes Sunday school, HUG and counseling services at Palmyra Elementary School in Orange.
Grandparents like James, who face an almost overwhelming struggle, inspired Koontz to found HUG, but she admits that the community center does not have the resources it would need to solve all the problems of her clients.
"We're here to support them as best we can," she said.
"But we need to raise an awareness so that schools and the public can help too. No grandparent has to go through this alone."