Schools roll out the red carpet for dads who volunteer

Like lots of moms, Kristin Clennan makes time to volunteer at her children’s school. She arranges her work as an interior designer so she can be there a few times a month, getting to know the teachers and helping them by making copies or tutoring students. Once a year, she’s invited to a volunteer appreciation breakfast.

When her husband, Ryan, took a day off work this month to volunteer at the school in Ashburn, Va., there was a free T-shirt and a printed agenda waiting for him in the office. He had his picture taken with his two daughters for a Wall of Fame in the front hallway, and he was introduced on the televised morning announcements, along with another dad who was volunteering that day.

“Make sure to give them a big high-five when you see them,” Assistant Principal Erin Timothy told the 850 students at Loudoun County’s Steuart W. Weller Elementary School.

Fathers are far more involved parents today than they were a generation ago, just as more women have joined the workforce. Studies show that fathers spend more time playing with their kids, helping with their homework, and shuttling them to play dates and soccer games. Educators say dads tend to get involved with scouting or sports teams, but when it comes to their children’s schools, many men are still hanging back.

Elementary schools, in particular, remain bastions of nurturing women, with an overwhelmingly female teacher corps and an army of “classroom moms” who arrange class gifts, hang up streamers and hearts for Valentine’s Day parties, or volunteer to pull down last month’s artwork from the hallways.

“We always welcomed parents into schools. We never said, ‘No dads,’ ” Timothy said after an orientation designed for potential male volunteers last fall. “But even if both Mom and Dad work full time, moms often feel guilty if they don’t get into the schools. Dads don’t have that guilt.”

At Steuart Weller, Timothy said, calls for parent volunteers usually yield nine times as many women as men, and men are still a rarity at PTO meetings.

Eager to introduce students to positive male role models, schools around the country are making a direct appeal to fathers. Administrators are organizing Doughnuts With Dads events or nights out at professional sporting events.

Prince George’s County schools host an annual Men Make a Difference Day, inviting fathers or father figures to schools for classroom visits, basketball games and motivational speakers.

Hoffman Boston Elementary in Arlington County hosts a ­father-and-son book club, and Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria has a weekly tutoring session with dads. Academy Principal Patricia Zissios said some fathers become lasting role models for students who do not have a reliable father figure.

The national Parent Teacher Association named its first male president in 2009, after more than a century of female leadership. Faced with declining membership — and citing research that paternal involvement leads to better academic performance and fewer discipline problems — PTAs are employing more-­aggressive strategies for recruiting men and have developed a father involvement “how-to” guide.

“I tell my leaders to give men a task,” said Otha Thornton, the National PTA’s current president, the second man to lead the 4.3 million-member organization. “They want to fix things, and they want to get to what needs to be done.”

The Watch D.O.G.S. program — short for “Dads of Great Students” — at Steuart Weller operates under a similar principle, offering volunteers agendas when they arrive.

Dana Schlafman, a dad who volunteered alongside Ryan Clennan, said he appreciated knowing that there would be clear instructions.

“I don’t want to say it’s daunting, but certainly it creates a little anxiety stepping into the unknown,” Schlafman said.

The Watch D.O.G.S. program, which started at a school in Arkansas in 1998 and has spread to nearly 4,000 schools nationwide, relies on another tool that the PTA promotes: recognizing and celebrating its male volunteers.

“Prepare to be a rock star,” school counselor Beth Hall told the Steuart Weller fathers at the volunteer orientation last fall. The program calls the dads “Heroes of the Hallways.”

Dozens of men signed up this year, an increase from last year, but there is still a heavy dose of novelty and excitement surrounding their visits.

Kristin Clennan said her daughters looked forward to their father’s school visit for months. Her older daughter, fifth-grader Taylor, got sick early in the week and was distraught at the prospect of missing it.

When the day arrived, her younger daughter, third-grader Lindsey, described the experience this way: “It’s just like, Whoa! Yes! You realize it’s your dad, and that’s so awesome!”

Taylor and her friends said they also enjoy it when their moms volunteer, but it’s different. “The moms are kind of like teacher’s helpers,” one friend said.

“When dads come we get to do more fun things,” Taylor said.

Ryan Clennan started his day welcoming students at the kiss-and-ride with a high-five and a “Hey, Buddy!” Then came morning announcements and a brief photo shoot. By 8:30 a.m., he was crouched on the floor of a fifth-grade classroom playing a math game with Taylor and her classmates.

In a second-grade classroom, he was assigned another math game and a list of students. “Grab a seat guys. It’s just like bingo,” he said as four boys bounced happily up to his table.

He spent a lunch period in a deafening cafeteria and then went outside to play basketball with Lindsey and her friends. Then he went through the lunch line again, this time with Taylor, and went back outside to play.

Between periods, he was tasked with monitoring hallways and making sure that doors were locked. The program encourages dads to bolster school security by keeping an eye out for bullying and strangers. (When he volunteered last year, he got a walkie-talkie to aid in this mission. “It made me feel pretty special. I’m not going to lie,” he said.)

Clennan has his own graphic design business, so it was not too tough to clear his schedule for a day. Like his wife, he feels it’s a priority to be involved with his daughters at school as well as at home. He goes on field trips, and he’s a little sheepish about the extra attention he gets for volunteering during the regular school day. “My wife is here all the time,” he said.  

At the same time, “it doesn’t hurt” to tailor the experience to men, he said, minutes before a little boy took a running start and jumped up for a high-five.

“You see how excited they get, and you are like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do this again,’ ” Clennan said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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