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Monday, April 18, 2016

Woodfill's Watch D.O.G.S. Program Encourages Father-Figure Involvement

Matthew Kramer, Woodfill Watch D.O.G.S. volunteer and parent of a 1st grader and 3rd grader.

Look around any Fort Thomas elementary school on any given day and you're likely to see more female adults than males. "In my experience as principal, I have seen more female volunteers be on committees, PTO, etc.," says Woodfill Elementary School (WES) Principal Keith Faust. "However at WES I'm proud to say that we have five male teachers, not including me." And yet, not a large number of male volunteers. Enter Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students).

A program developed by the National Center for Fathering, WATCH D.O.G.S. is a "school-based, father-involvement program that works to support education and safety." With more than 5,148 registered schools in 47 states, the program works to involve fathers, grandfathers, step-fathers, uncles and other father figures as volunteers for one full day at school.

Rachel Caswell, counselor at Woodfill, first learned about the Watch D.O.G.S. program while working in another school district as a teacher. With the help of another teacher she implemented the program at that school. "It went really well, so when I was hired as a counselor at Woodfill I knew I would want to start the program here as well," she says.

It's one of the reasons Faust hired her. "Rachel actually discussed Watch D.O.G.S. at her interview when she was applying for the position within the district," Faust says. "This is one of the things that set her apart in my opinion as a great counselor. So when she said she was ready to bring the program to Woodfill, I was all in." 

Caswell says she was inspired to start the program at Woodfill simply because it's good for kids. "As a school counselor, I strongly believe in creating a positive school culture where students feel safe and comfortable coming to school," Caswell says. "This program helps me achieve this for our kids." 

Caswell sent home flyers advertising a Watch D.O.G.S. informational session/pizza party for Woodfill father figures and students. "I clearly remember the stack of R.S.V.Ps getting extremely large on my desk," she says. "I knew we would have a good turnout, but Woodfill's father figures really exceeded my expectations." Caswell says Woodfill parent Aaron Broomall gave a presentation to more than 200 father figures about the importance of having an actively engaged male role model in a child's life.

Aaron Broomall with his daughter, Allette.

Broomall has volunteered at Woodfill since his daughter, Allette, was in the first grade. "I don't often see many other dads volunteering," Broomall says. "I think that is for a variety of reasons. First, I don't think many dads feel entirely comfortable in the school environment. Most of us grew up in schools only seeing women—as teachers and as volunteers—so when we think about participating with our kids, our minds naturally drift to areas that we experienced men as we grew up, like coaching sports or leading Cub Scouts. Second, I think a lot of dads don't consider themselves good with kids. We often aren't sure what to do when a child is crying because we accidentally knocked them over on the playground, and we aren't completely sure what the boundaries are in today's society. Finally, I think many men don't volunteer because they're not being asked to. It's often the women that are assumed to have the time to help out, so they're the target of communication and jobs, but I believe if more men were asked, many more would step up." 
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And that's exactly what has happened. After Broomall's presentation, Caswell offered up a calendar for father figures to sign up as Watch D.O.G.S. "There was no pressure to sign up," Caswell says. "To me, it was a win if they signed up and a win if they spent the evening eating pizza with their kids."

Since the program's start date in February, there have been about 55 father-figure volunteers, and Caswell says they have about 20 more to go until the end of the school year.

"Watch D.O.G.S. is so great because it gives dads a program and structure where they can freely participate without having to take the plunge all on their own," Faust says. "We've heard dads say they don't always feel comfortable coming into the school and volunteering in classrooms. They feel out of place at times and a bit uncomfortable, and this gives them the comfort they need." 

And Broomall says it's a great relationship-building tool for dads and their kids. "What an awesome display of love for your child to take a complete day off work just to spend time with them and learn about their life and school," Broomall says. "Studies show that a child without an engaged dad is five times more likely to live below the poverty level, at a higher risk of committing a crime, seven times as likely to have a teenage pregnancy, more likely to be unhealthy and twice as likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school. Second, I think it's so important to show our kids positive male role models. To expose them to men from every walk of life, with different jobs, different family conditions, different backgrounds that can be looked up to and respected and to learn from those men to gain a larger and more diverse worldview. Finally, I think that having more men around in the school helps our kids to feel safer. Our kids hear stories of what has happened in other schools. They have drills on what to do if something bad ever happens and having another set of eyes to look out, working to keep them safe, is surely a comfort." 

Caswell agrees in the importance of father figures being invested and volunteering at schools. "When a male role model is actively engaged in a child's life they learn more, perform better and exhibit healthier behavior both socially and emotionally," Caswell says.

Bill Smith, Woodfill Watch D.O.G.S. volunteer and parent of a 4th grader.

What's a typical day for Woodfill Watch D.O.G.S. like? Caswell says the father figure, who must have completed a background check and the district chaperone training, has a brief orientation with her. Next, the father welcomes students to school by opening their car door or giving them a high-five as they enter the building. They spend about 45 minutes volunteering in five different classrooms throughout the day. This includes one special, such as art, music, P.E., library or Spanish. Throughout the day, Caswell says they have to complete patrolling time. This involves walking up and down the hallways, and around the parking lot and the perimeter of the building to make sure everything looks safe and secure. "The day ends with helping out at car line by high-fiving kids or opening car doors and saying goodbye to kids for the day," Caswell says.

Faust says a very basic result of the program is the number of father figures Woodfill now has volunteering on a daily basis—almost one a day since February. "Other results include smiles, laughing, hugs, high fives and a connection between the males in our community and our students," Faust says. "The two pieces of feedback I get from dads is that they are tired at the end of the day, and they loved every minute and say it was the best thing they've done in a long time." 

Faust says responses from students in the hallways include, "My dad is coming to school next week, tomorrow, today," with genuine excitement. "They are proud of their dad and the fact that they have committed time out of their day to be with them," Faust says. "It is very rewarding." 

At the end of the day, Caswell says fathers complete a survey so she can get anonymous feedback from them. "The results have all been extremely positive," Caswell says. "The teachers seem to enjoy having the fathers around because, like me, they are able to see the bigger pictures of what this program provides our kids."

Maria Schuman, a 5th-grade teacher at Woodfill, says the program has been a great addition to the school. "My favorite part of the program is watching the Watch D.O.G.S. interact with students in small groups or even getting to read/work with students one-on-one," she says. "My fifth graders enjoy most when the dad joins us for our morning meeting. The students share out, and in turn get to hear from the perspective of a dad in our school community." 

Rhonda Gardner, a kindergarten teacher at Woodfill, appreciates the additional safety the program provides. "I love how it makes me feel a bit safer and secure when I see our Watch D.O.G.S. walking the perimeter of the school, around the playground and doors, just to make sure things are all safe." 

Fausts says modeling lifelong learning shows students the importance of a commitment to education. "I think anytime you can show children that both parents are invested in school, it can be powerful," he says.

Broomall agrees. "I think it comes down to that it really isn't about us dads," Broomall says. "It's about our kids and I believe our kids desperately need us engaged in their education. ... And, my bet is that if a dad does it, they'll want to do it again because they will find that they do have a place and their presence does matter."

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