Saturday, March 8, 2014
By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Kennebec Journal
A program that allows fathers to volunteer as a positive male presence in school communities, having set up its first Maine chapter in Belgrade, is spreading throughout the state.
Todd Atwood, a volunteer Watch Dog at Belgrade Central School, sits with his son Luke, 8, during lunch Thursday.
Michael G. Seamans/Kennebec Journal
If the trend continues, seeing a volunteer father in school will be the rule rather than the exception, said Christopher Rhoda, an organizer in Belgrade.
Watch DOGS -- Dads of Great Students -- has benefited from media exposure, positive reviews from people involved with the program and an increased concern about school security.
"I hate to say this, but I think the event in Newtown certainly raised awareness for lots of things at the school level," Rhoda said, referring to the December school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Founded in 1998 in response to another school shooting in Arkansas, the program's initial goal was to reduce violence and bullying in schools.
However, the advantages of bringing caring fathers into schools go beyond security and a sense of added comfort in the wake of a national tragedy.
Having an extra adult in the room can help teachers to work more effectively, and Rhoda said teachers are always relieved to have someone who can work with students one-on-one or in small groups. "There's always that individual attention needed," he said.
The fact that the adult is a man is also a bonus, Rhoda said, because men are somewhat rare in school communities, especially in elementary schools. Having a positive male role model can help young children to understand what behavior is expected from both boys and girls.
"Principals have told me that the culture of the school changes. The kids sit up a little straighter," Rhoda said.
The program also has benefited because it is fairly easy to implement. A father who believes in the program puts up or raises $350 for a starter kit, which includes promotional material, instructions and guidelines.
After receiving the kit, the father, who becomes known as "top dog," sends invitations to all of the school's fathers for a pizza party, which recruits interested volunteers and allows them to begin volunteering.
At Belgrade Central School, New England's first chapter, fathers have continued to increase their participation levels since the program began in October. By the end of the school year, Rhoda said, the program's 50 volunteer fathers, including three grandfathers, will have provided a presence on 68 school days, nearly half of the total number of school days.
"We had over 510 volunteer hours," Rhoda said. "We have four first-time dads scheduled this week."
Rhoda said that media coverage and social networking sites have allowed the program to grow quickly, in Maine and elsewhere.
"Folks are hearing about it in different ways," he said. "Everybody that hears about it likes it. You just have to find that individual who's willing to go another step."
In Maine, Belgrade has been joined by chapters at Henry L. Cottrell Elementary School in Monmouth and Shapleigh Memorial School in Shapleigh.
Lisbon Community School will join the list officially after a kickoff event for potential father volunteers at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Rhoda said he also has heard of interest at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, China Primary School in China, and schools in the Augusta School District.
Despite the growth, Maine still lags behind the nationwide trend. Nationally, a quarter of a million fathers volunteered at 2,803 schools in 46 states this school year, according to Chris Danenhauer, a National Senior Program Developer for the organization.
About 200 of those schools, and four states, have joined in just the past few months. Another 400 schools or so have expressed an interest but have not completed the process, Rhoda said.
Rhoda said one obstacle is certain schools' reluctance to participate.
"Some schools are very open to volunteers; that's the culture of that school," he said. "There are others that don't so much. Sometimes it's a cultural shift. It takes a while."
Even so, with the advantages of father volunteers in the classrooms and in the hallways becoming increasingly apparent, the change is happening, one school at a time.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: