Nearly 100 dads, stepdads, grandads, and other dad-figures filled the cafeteria at Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts for the first meeting of their new WatchD.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program in October 2018. It was an eating meeting – bring your child, eat pizza, learn how to get more involved in school life – and they were expecting half as many people as turned up. Some dads and kids waited in line for almost an hour for a single slice of pizza, but that didn’t dampen the excitement for the dads who were eager to get involved.
When asked about the turnout for the program, Aaron Mack, head of the Patrick Henry chapter of WatchD.O.G.S, says, “We were giving out pizza!” But he’s quick to add, “A lot of guys want to be more involved at their kid’s school but don’t know where to start. I think they like the idea that this is just for dads, and we make it easy for them to be a part of what’s happening here.”
WatchD.O.G.S is a national program that began in Arkansas in 1998 and has since engaged hundreds of thousands of fathers and father figures across the country in more meaningful involvement in school life. The PTA at Patrick Henry has been after Aaron Mack for years to take on a leadership role at the school. As a single dad who runs a commercial cleaning business and has a daughter in fourth grade, Aaron has preferred to focus his involvement on his own daughter until this year.
“I thought to myself – there’s no way,” Mack says. “I run a business. I’m busy being a parent to my own child. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’m at the school a lot of the time anyway. And I know a lot of guys struggle to find ways to be a productive citizen in our school. I figured I could help them find a way in.”
Sinc Mack’s daughter was in kindergarten, he’s been a fixture at the school – joining her for lunch in the cafeteria, reading to her class, keeping watch over the playground. “There are days when I have free time and I just say, ‘You know what I’m going to do today? I’m going to pop into Patrick Henry and say What’s Up,’” Mack says. “But it’s because I feel comfortable. I want to see more dads out here on the playground just hanging out. That’s my goal for WatchD.O.G.S. at Patrick Henry – for more dads to feel that comfortable. And not just fathers – stepfathers, grandfathers, any father figures who are important in these students’ lives.”
WatchD.O.G.S requires that dads spend a full day volunteering at the school – a steep time commitment for working parents, but one that allows them to experience the full school day and better understand how kids spend their time. In a single day, a WatchD.O.G. might volunteer in several classrooms, monitor the lunchroom and playground, patrol the school grounds, or help out in a speciality space, like the library or gym.
Mack thinks father involvement is positive for the kids, especially seeing working dads take time off to invest in the school. “It’s good for the kids to see real guys out here,” Mack says. “I shared with the dads at the first meeting – I don’t think my dad ever came to my school. He was a good dad, but the only times he ever came were to my sports events, or when I played in the band, or when I got in trouble. We never sat down and ate lunch. Dads just didn’t come up to school in those days. I think he would have been more involved if there was something like this program available.”
Mack knows too that some kids don’t have positive male role models, and he sees WatchD.O.G.S as a way to connect with those kids, however briefly. “When I’m here, the boys out on the playground want to give me a pound and show me their shots,” he says. “Some of the girls want to tell me about their lives – I’ll come to visit my daughter and there are little girls who come over and want to tell me everything that’s going on with them.”
More than 50 dads and other father figures have signed up for a full volunteer day at Patrick Henry so far. This spring, WatchD.O.G.S will team up with the PTA to hold Doughnuts with Dads, another outreach event.
Mack is optimistic that the program will carry on at Patrick Henry even after his daughter graduates to middle school and he moves on from the school. The Principal, Dr. Eileen Atkinson, and the PTA have been strong supporters of the program so far, helping to facilitate Pizza with Dads and support Mack’s ongoing work. But what Mack really needs is other dads to help him keep the program alive. “I’ve been slammed with business and working like crazy, so what I need is a team. We need dads with kids in the younger grades who can take over when I’m not here to do it.”