Todd Yemc once believed kindergarteners spent the bulk of their school day drawing pictures and coloring. His assumption quickly evaporated after he volunteered with the school district’s WATCH D.O.G.S. program, an educational initiative the National Center For Fathering launched 17 years ago.
“It’s very amazing,” said Yemc, as he looks upon his son Kaleb who’s a kindergartener at Ridgeview Elementary. His daughter Emma is in third grade at the same school. “He’s writing complete sentences in kindergarten. I had no idea what went on here.”
Yemc is in good company. A wave of fathers, grandfathers, uncles and other father figures have personally discovered how rewarding and demanding the rigors of public education are thanks to WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students). Since October, 56 fathers have signed up with the program at Ridgeview and another 82 enlisted at Appleview Elementary.
The nonprofit National Center For Fathering launched WATCH D.O.G.S. in 1998 in one school in Springdale, Ark. out of concern for the growing social and economic impact of fatherlessness in America. It has since mushroomed to more than 3,793 schools in 46 states plus the District of Columbia.
According to its website, more than 24 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent, according to NCFF.
The men’s responsibilities are diverse and rewarding. After donning their WATCH D.O.G.S. T-shirt, they greet the students arriving to school, make the rounds around the hallways, provide one-on-one tutoring, interact with students during lunch and recess, correct homework, greet parents waiting to pick-up their children at the end of the school day and say goodbye to kids as they board the bus or parents’ vehicle.
Yemc is such a strong supporter of WATCH D.O.G.S. that he now serves as the “Top Dog,” meaning he helps coordinates the program’s goals for Ridgeview. He possesses a dogged determination to raise the banner of positive fathering in schools.
Ridgeview Elementary principal Marialyce Zeerip says that ambition is being reached. She says this while looking down the empty hallways that are lined with a throng of coats and boots. The hum of teachers’ instructions filters into the open corridor.
Zeerip is heartened to know there are teachers who can count on the WATCH D.O.G.S. to come alongside their students and help them with progress in their learning.
Infused with Positive Role Models and Energy
“We can’t have too many positive role models,” said Zeerip. “The men bring a positive energy and enthusiasm to the school.”
WATCH D.O.G.S. has proven itself to be a win-win opportunity for the school community, said Andy Wagner, a kindergarten teacher at Ridgeview.
“Research shows that dads who are involved with the kids are more successful,” said Wagner. “In the elementary level, there are not a lot of male teachers and being a dad myself, I wanted to see more dads involved.”
“We’ve seen an increase in staff, parent and student morale,” added Penny Darling, Ridgeview’s behavior interventionist. “Our goal is to have one WATCH D.O.G.S. volunteer each day and sometimes have two WATCH D.O.G.S.”
WATCH D.O.G.S.’ reputation precedes itself in the community, said Rob Looney, a volunteer at Ridgeview who works for a residential electrical contractor. His two sons, Ryan and Austin, attend Ridgeview.
Take an Extra Day Off
“My boss heard of the program and said by all means take time off,” Looney said. “This year, I did four days and he’s willing to let me do more.”
In previous years, encouraging dads to volunteer in school was met with minimal success, said Mickey Larson who serves as Appleview’s Top Dog. Now, it’s a new day in the education of the school’s elementary students.
“The reaction from dads has been really encouraging,” said Larson. “We’ve been trying for 15 years to bring dads to school to volunteer and it turns out we just needed a program like this to ask them.”