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At school, there's no one like Dad PDF Print E-mail
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Written by James Vaznis   

Dorchester elementary club gets men involved in their children's education

Once a month, 7-year-old Damaris Nova writes an invitation to her father, sometimes drawing a picture of them together or attaching a snapshot.

"We hope you can join us," she wrote this month before slipping into his bedroom and placing the note on a nightstand where he couldn't miss it.

The next morning, the second-grader with the long, brown ponytail waited in her classroom at William Monroe Trotter School, frequently looking over her shoulder to see whether her father had arrived for a meeting of the "Dads Club."

For the past three years, dozens of fathers have descended on this Dorchester elementary school once a month to participate in a program designed to bolster the tangential role that many men play in their children's education.

At first, attendance was poor. Only a handful of men showed up to what was then billed as a "coffee hour." But then the school's family outreach coordinator, Karen Harris, tried a new tactic, crafting a flier that appeared as if it were the children extending the invitation. And more than 50 men showed up.

"It kind of tugs at your heartstrings and makes you want to come out," said Derek Williams, 48, the club's cochairman, who has a 7-year-old daughter at the school. "It's nice when you see men just taking a rightful place in their child's life."

Trotter is at the forefront of a national movement to get more men involved at their children's schools, whether it's by chaperoning field trips, partaking in book discussions, or simply getting together with other men to talk about the meaning of fatherhood in today's world of ever-blurring gender roles.

While the involvement of any parent - mother or father - is seen as a boon for a child's education, a small but growing body of controversial research has indicated that students blossom even more when a father jumps in.

Some of that influence is due to long-persisting gender stereotypes: Because American culture does not expect fathers to be actively engaged in their children's education, the act of a father stepping inside a school can bolster the importance of education in a child's mind. In a way, that clout is reminiscent of a generations-old expression still muttered by some frustrated mothers: "Just wait until your father gets home."

"Over the years, it's primarily been the mothers doing everything," said Ruth Kaplan, a Brookline resident who is the parent representative on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. "On the one hand, I feel it's very gratifying as a mother to volunteer, but given that so many women are in the workforce, it would be nice if there was an expectation that men be more involved."

But luring fathers through the school doors and into the world of highly organized supermoms can be tough. Many fathers do not think they have the time to help herd massive turnouts for bake sales or critical tax votes, which was the top response given in a recent survey of 3,000 fathers by the national Parent Teacher Association.

The second-most cited response: No one asked them to.

"Let's face it," said Chuck Saylors, who will become the first male president of the national PTA in June. "This organization started 112 years ago as the National Congress of Mothers. It's always been a mom's organization. We are trying to break that barrier down. It's not a physical wall; it's a mental wall."

Schools often go all out to bring in men. An elementary school in Andover holds a father-daughter dance, while other schools tap male expertise to build playgrounds, network schools for the Internet, or allow students to shadow them for a day at work.

Increasingly, more schools - including Trotter and a handful of other Boston schools - are fostering a more permanent paternal presence by putting together dads clubs. The Massachusetts chapter of the PTA this week enlisted its first male involvement chairman, following the national group's quest to boost male membership, which constitutes roughly 10 percent of its 5.5 million members nationwide.

Yet designating an event for fathers can stir controversy because some students may not have a father to invite.

Harris often puts parenthesis around "dads" to imply that any male role model - a grandfather, an uncle, a brother, a mother's boyfriend - is welcome. She allows women to attend, too. But she refuses to drop "Dads" from the club's name.

"You can't sweep the issue under the rug and call it something else," Harris said. "If we had a 'parent day,' the majority who would come would be women."

The men have injected some much-needed male guidance into this school of about 450 students, many of whom live in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods. Each year, the men work in a "Boys to Men" program to help older male students with discipline problems make better choices about their behavior.

About two dozen fathers, grandfathers, and uncles, ranging in age from their early 20s to over 50, and a few women showed up for last Thursday's Dads Club, during which the Rev. Bruce Wall spoke about who their male role models were and how they influenced their approach to fatherhood.

Some fathers had taken the day off from work, while others did not have to work until later or simply took a few hours for lunch.

After the 45-minute talk, Harris invited the men to their children's classrooms. But she had one request: She wanted them to "adopt" all their children's classmates so that any student without a male role model at home could at least have one at school.

In the cafeteria, 22-year-old Jamel Massie of Jamaica Plain had lunch with his daughter, Kamya Campbell, 6, and two of her classmates. The girls giggled as they pleaded with him to give them some of his vanilla-cream wafers.

Across the cafeteria, 6-year-old Jaelene Ortiz had lunch with her uncle, Jose Adames, whom she called the previous day because her father could not make it. Adames took a vacation day from his job as an animal lab technician at Dana Farber.

And in a second-grade classroom as the clock ticked well pass 11 a.m., Damaris settled on disappointment - her father would be a no-show - and she focused attention on her teacher.

Yet she couldn't stop looking over her shoulder to the back of the classroom. Suddenly, she stood up. Her father had quietly sneaked inside. She ran up to him, jumped into his arms, and gave him a big hug.

"He means a lot to me," she said later, as she and her father, Jose Nova, sat in the cafeteria.

Damaris is one of the lucky ones. Her father, who was running late that day, regularly attends the monthly meetings and visits her classroom, as well as those of her brother and sister. Damaris often tags along with him.

As he watched his daughter eat lunch with a few friends, he noticed a dearth of men among dozens of students in the room. "I think there should be more fathers stepping up," he said. "They should really make an effort. . . . It really makes the kids feel good to see your presence."

James Vaznis can be reached at


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