Ravell Call, Deseret News
When Brent Anderton shows up at Salt Lake City’s Morningside Elementary School, he gets noticed. “Hi, Cambri’s dad!,” “Hi, Caleb’s dad!,” the kids chirp, as Anderton high-fives his way down the school’s hallways.
Anderton, 44,volunteers often at Morningside, a tidy school in Salt Lake City’s Millcreek neighborhood where 10-year-old Cambri is a 4th grader, and where son Caleb attended before graduating to Wasatch Jr. High. All of Morningside’s teachers and staff are women, so Anderton’s masculine presence is a novelty around the school. He’s going to be the school’s PTA co-president next year (with another dad, Kevin Hobbs), and that makes him even more of an anomaly. Men made up just 10 percent of national PTA membership, according to 2009 data. (PTA's original name was "National Congress of Mothers.")
It's long been known that parental involvement at school boosts student success. However, it's often assumed that family involvement means mothers are involved, according to an issue brief from the National Center for Education Statistics. However, the Center's statistics show that when fathers get involved at school, kids get better grades, participate in more extracurricular activities and are less likely to repeat a grade, or be suspended or expelled.
Surveys show that today's fathers are getting involved at their kids' schools more than dads of past generations, and that's a good thing. Kids might enjoy imagining a superhero dad who can leap over tall buildings and stop speeding locomotives. But School Dad is the guy they really need.
Fathers and schools
Being involved at school didn’t come naturally to Anderton, who works in sales for a Utah engineering firm. He regrets missing out on many school functions for his oldest son, Parker, now a University of Utah student. Anderton vowed to himself that nothing would prevent him from being a part of the school lives of his two younger children. Not even his now-amicable 2006 divorce from the children’s mother, Tami Toone. And not his squeamishness about being the only man in what has largely become a woman’s world.
“With Caleb and Cambri, I decided that I wouldn’t let any perceived fear stop me from getting involved in their lives,” Anderton said. “I really believe that what’s best for kids is to have a mom and a dad involved in their lives.”
Too few do, and it’s usually the dad who is missing. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that 24 million children in America — one in three — live in homes where their biological father is absent. Male role models are in short supply at school, too.
Federal statistics from the 2007-08 school year showed that three out of four public school teachers were female. At elementary schools, the gender proportions are typically much more lopsided.
Fathers are a growing presence in schools, though, in part because of efforts from national programs to promote their presence there. Anderton, one of those engaged dads, is helping to start Morningside’s new Watch D.O.G.S. — Dads Of Great Kids — chapter, a national program that encourages fathers to take one day off work each year to spend the day helping out at a child’s school.
WATCH D.O.G.S. provides training and structure to ensure the experience is a good one for fathers and father figures, kids and teachers. There are nearly 3,000 active programs in 46 states participating in the WATCH D.O.G.S. program, said Chris Danenhauer, national senior program director for WATCH D.O.G.S., based at the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City, Mo.
The two main goals of the group are to provide positive male role models in schools, and to serve as extra sets of eyes and ears. Dads read with kids, push swings and help out with projects. In troubled schools, dads patrol hallways, enhancing security and reducing bullying.
“It’s making a huge influence,” Danenhauer said, citing surveys the group collects. “Kids feel safer. Faculty feels safer because of the extra male presence. Kids perform better, and feel better emotionally, socially and physically when a dad is engaged in their education.”
The problem of fathers being absent from their children’s lives has become a huge issue in the United States, said Kenneth Braswell, director of the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, which works to support engaged fatherhood under a federal contract.
Braswell, a single father, knows personally the challenges of maintaining a presence in his children’s lives while working to support them. He suggested ways that in-home and non-custodial fathers could involve themselves with school life.
Dropping children off at school before heading to work is a great place to start, he said, because it establishes a father as a physical presence in front of children’s’ friends and teachers. Attending parent-teacher conferences — and not as a mere silent partner — is another important avenue.
Braswell likes helping kids with homework and school projects, though he says today’s math assignments stymie him.
“My kids have a different excitement level for projects if I show I want to work with them,” he said. “It becomes fun.”
There’s a volunteer assignment to fit every dad, Braswell said, from coaching sports, mentoring academics, or serving as a guest speaker once a year. Programs like WATCH D.O.G.S. make male volunteerism easier. But simply attending parent-teacher conferences is a good start, Braswell said.
For Anderton and Toone, that meant scheduling separate conferences with teachers when their divorce was painfully new. Now, though, they work together smoothly to share custody and support school activities for their children. At the time of the divorce, Toone didn’t favor sharing custody and school engagement with her former husband. The benefits she’s seen from Anderton’s continued involvement in their children’s lives changed her mind. Her battle with cancer during the past year and a half cemented that new outlook.
“His help has been a blessing,” she said. “He’s so involved that we can both pick up the slack with the kids, school and events. He’s really been a team player.”
Anderton’s presence at school has helped Cambri and Caleb feel important and cared for, she said, and makes them feel like their friends can understand who both of their parents are even though they don’t live together.
Toby Carmichael, Jr., a veterinarian in Acworth, Ga., helped start a WATCH D.O.G.S. group at Acworth Intermediate School where son Grant is a 4th grader and daughter Rachel attended until moving on to Arbor Middle School last fall. The program starts in the fall with a pizza dinner for dads and kids, where a video is shown to encourage dads to sign up. Those who do receive guidelines, and are scheduled to help in several classrooms during the day, always including those of their own children.
After checking in, a volunteer dad might help kids out of cars and into classrooms, listen to reading, play games on the playground or help kids find books in the library. And, always, eat lunch in the cafeteria with their child(ren).
Daughter Rachel says its “pretty cool,” because all of her friends got to meet her dad. She didn’t even mind that he was kind of “goofy” on the playground at recess time.
Her dad likes being recognized by his children’s friends. In fact, it’s his favorite compliment.
“First I was ‘Toby’s son,’ then I was ‘Toby,’” Carmichael said. “Later, I was ‘Mr. Carmichael’ and then ‘Dr. Carmichael.’ Now I’ve reached the epitome. I’m ‘Rachel and Grant’s dad.’ That’s the highest I think I’ll ever get.”