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Houston Dad Learns Valuable Lessons Volunteering at School

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Somebody get Terrance Harris some Advil.

After volunteering all day at his son's elementary school in Houston last month, Harris' knees ached from sitting in tiny chairs, and he was exhausted from a day filled with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, cutting construction paper, playing learning games, and reading books with students.

But it was a small price to pay for the lessons he learned and the sense of pride his 6-year-old son Nigel felt because Harris participated in the Gleason Elementary School's Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program.

 "I have a newfound respect for teachers," said Harris, a sportswriter and father of two who is former college classmate of mine. "It's crazy. I don't know how they do it."

Watch D.O.G.S. is a K-12 father-engagement initiative run by the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City, Mo. Two fathers in Springdale, Ark., founded the program following the tragic school shootings at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school in 1998 that left four students and one teacher dead.

Watch D.O.G.S. fathers must commit to volunteer all day at their child's school. From greeting the students in the morning and reading the announcements to assisting teachers in the classroom, dads are assigned a variety of tasks all over campus and not just with their own child. 

The program's goals are deceivingly simple but meaningful:

  • Provide students with positive male role models who emphasize the importance of education.
  • Give schools volunteers who can assist with creating a culture of increased security. 

Gleason Elementary School Principal Melody Goffney said traditionally there are very few men on elementary school campuses, so Watch D.O.G.S. provides her 866 students with the opportunity to have a strong male presence on campus. This school year almost every day is booked with a dad volunteer.

Goffney said her students try to impress the dads with their good behavior when they spot them on campus. (That's easy because every dad in the program must wear a Watch D.O.G.S. t-shirt featuring a large bulldog on the front.) This is the second year that the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District school has been involved with the program. Participating schools pay a one-time start-up fee and must take part in a training session.

Gleason is one of the more than 3,200 schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia that have Watch D.O.G.S. programs. Last year, about 250,000 men volunteered at their child's school. Eric Snow, the program's executive director, anticipates that almost 4,000 schools will be using the program by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Watch D.O.G.S. has grown mostly by word-of-mouth and from presentations Snow, who helped developed the program in Springdale, has made at national and regional education conferences.  (A feature by Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show in February didn't hurt either.)

In an era where accountability and results are emphasized throughout education, Snow believes that Watch D.O.G.S. has thrived because of the almost undisputed research-supported belief that children benefit academically and behaviorally from the presence of an adult male figure in their lives.

Still, almost by default, most school-related notices, meetings, and requests for volunteers falls on the mother, whether she works outside the home or not. Watch D.O.G.S. messages men directly, inviting them at first to have pizza or doughnuts with their children and then by asking them to spend one day of the year at the school.

"It's important to get these guys connected," said Snow, who also is a member of the National PTA's board of directors.

Dads often are left out of the loop at schools but it's not always on purpose. Sometimes moms (me included) forget to ask dads to pitch in or even attend a school meeting. But when you do ask, the results can be profound.

This year for Halloween, I drafted my husband to lead a drawing activity for my son's 3rd grade class. You would have thought LeBron James showed up to draw monsters with chalk on the playground based on the students' reactions. (Confession: My husband is 6-foot-7 so he tends to generate some buzz.) I, on the other hand, was somewhat invisible since students see me at the school all the time. 

Harris said students were equally excited to see him on Gleason's campus and he didn't have a minute to spare during his daylong visit on Oct. 18. He was even supposed to be "it" during a dogdeball game during recess. 

But when the dodgeball game was rained out, a teacher handed him writing workbooks to assemble. As many schools grapple with smaller budgets, the addition of up to 600 volunteer hours a year can be a welcome bonus.

"She told me flat out: This is going to save me from doing this over the weekend," said Harris, who posted updates about his day on Facebook. "I have a better appreciation and a better understanding of the workload teachers are up against with so little time and so few resources."

Harris, who also has a 12-year-old daughter, said he's committed to being an involved dad—especially since he's still considered "cool," for now. 

"It was a great day," he said, adding that he was in bed by 9 o'clock that night. "I would do it all over again."

Seems like my husband is ready to sign up too, Terrance. See you in the classroom.

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