Parents & Schools: Engaging Dads: A Win-Win Effort

By Dina G. Wert
Principal, March/April 2014

Here’s a common elementary school scenario: A father comes to pick up his third-grade daughter for a dentist appointment, and the secretary asks, “Who is her teacher?” Dad, shifting his weight and searching the office for a visual clue, stammers, “Oh geez, I’m not sure. I think it starts with a B…”

Let’s face it: Traditionally, fathers have not typically had an active role in their children’s education. Mom usually fills out that mountain of beginning- of-year paperwork. Mom gets the calls for discipline issues. Mom comes to the parent conferences. Mom volunteers at the classroom parties and chaperones the field trips.

Research demonstrates that children with involved fathers or male role models perform better in school, and are more likely to have positive peer relationships and fewer discipline problems. Because school has typically been viewed as Mom’s arena, though, fathers may feel uncomfortable getting involved in their children’s education.

Enter Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads Of Great Students), a National Center for Fathering program that 4,500 schools across the country have adopted. This initiative creates an active, consistent way for dads to engage in schools across the country.

Starting the Program
In 2006, I was handed the amazing opportunity and responsibility of opening a new building for a redistricted population of students and families. I was excited to build a culture of excitement for teaching and growing, a safe environment for learning, and a community of shared and positive values— and the Watch D.O.G.S. program was a huge part of supporting all three of these essential areas.

My son’s elementary school in a neighboring district was one of the first schools in Pennsylvania to adopt the D.O.G.S. program. With some guidance from staff there, and the support of my school counselor, Green Valley Elementary School kicked off its own program in 2007. The goals of the program are simple, but meaningful: 1.) provide positive male role models for the students, demonstrating by their presence that education is important; and 2.) provide extra sets of eyes and ears to enhance school security and reduce bullying. However, we found that the program benefits extended well beyond these two goals.

How It Works
The program encourages fathers (or uncles, grandfathers, etc.) to trade a day of work for a structured day of volunteering at school, following a schedule created to support students, staff, learning, and safety. A “Top Dog” volunteer works with the principal or staff member to coordinate scheduling and identify the projects volunteers can support. Some schools hold a kickoff event, such as “Donuts with Dad” or a pizza party, to introduce dads to the program.

Once we’d gotten started, our volunteers could be found doing multiplication flash cards with third graders, listening to first-grade readers in the library, clearing tables at lunch, showing off basketball skills at recess, retrieving stray balls in PE class, or reviewing fifth-grade weather vocabulary. Each day, volunteers walked the outside perimeter of the building to do a safety scan, helped out with bus and lunch duty, and greeted students as they entered the building.

At the end of the day, dads would head to the library to complete an online, anonymous survey for the national program to provide feedback. By far, our dads reported that their favorite part of the day was spending time in our autistic support classroom, which they said was a positive and humbling educational experience.

Benefits and Keys to Success
The D.O.G.S. program in our school was a win-win in so many areas. It helped shape a smooth-running school day and year. Students loved having their dads as part of their school day, seeing them on TV morning announcements, and high-fiving classmates in the hallways. Dads appreciated feeling useful in previously unfamiliar territory: their child’s school.

Our work with the D.O.G.S. program highlights the key components of any strategy to successfully engage fathers.

Educate staff about how to work with fathers. Teachers and staff need to understand and connect with the purpose of engaging fathers. They need to feel comfortable enough to take a risk to open their classrooms to an extra set of hands and eyes. For us, educating our staff on the benefits of the D.O.G.S. program and thinking outside the box to see the program’s positives were essential to garner buy-in and ensure success. At first, this was daunting to some teachers, but as the program took off, they began to recognize the myriad ways that D.O.G.S. could support our curriculum. Teachers became comfortable leveraging dads as supportive resources in new ways.

Show dads how the school day works. As we started our program, it became evident that many fathers were unfamiliar with the school setting and were intimidated by the jam-packed schedule of an elementary school day. Many were also in awe of what teachers and staff dealt with and accomplished in school. The D.O.G.S. program helped them feel comfortable in school. Before we knew it, our dads were not only our helping hands and eyes, but our biggest supporters in the community. Now, these fathers are voices of support for public education, programming, funding, and our teachers.

Keep organized. The D.O.G.S. program requires ongoing, detailed organization and legwork to make the experience successful for both dads and the school. Our school counselor, who served as the program liaison, kept us organized. She secured clearances, organized sign-up nights, communicated with Top Dog dads, and worked with teachers to create the daily schedule for the “Dad-a-day” on duty, which she reviewed with each dad every morning.

Team up with your parent association. Our guidance counselor worked with our Home and School association to provide the funding necessary to promote the program. For us, that entailed purchasing identification badges and holding a yearly pizza event.

Although I have moved on to another district, my former school continues to run a highly successful Watch D.O.G.S. program, now one of 24 in Pennsylvania. Last year, D.O.G.S. was adopted by the other four elementary schools in the district. The cost is minimal. The goals are simple but meaningful. The effort of engaging fathers is worth it. The culture of safety, learning, and community that it creates are what principals and great schools strive for daily.

Dina G. Wert is principal of West Bradford Elementary in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. NAESP MEMBER


Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.

Wert_MA15.pdf126.73 KB