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Parent Involvement

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Dads Make a Difference

When dads get involved, kids perform better in school. PTO fathers talk about how to get more men to participate.

by Michelle Bates Deakin

Dads have long known their place in the PTO: behind a barbecue grill flipping burgers at the spring carnival. Or maybe hammering pegs to rebuild a school playground. But scenes from around the country show that dads are staking out new ground in their children’s schools.

In Starkville, Miss., Eddie Myles has 1st graders gasping for air as he leads them through a 10-minute cardio kickboxing workout on Career Day.

In Lutz, Fla., Ricky Spencer, president of Denham Oaks Elementary School’s Dads Club, leads 2nd graders through a reading of Captain Underpants. Tonight he’ll do some advance work on a spring golf tournament that last year raised $4,000.

In Aurora, Ill., Jim Paglia, last year’s president of the Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary PTA, makes his weekly appearance in his 8-year-old son’s classroom to help drill kids on spelling.

In most communities, PTOs traditionally have been thought of as Moms Clubs. But fathers are discovering an urge to participate actively in their children’s educations. Just as many of today’s fathers are the first in their families to change babies’ diapers, they’re now sharing another stage of child rearing typically left to mothers: joining the PTO. “Fathers should participate in their children’s education just like mothers should go to sporting events,” says Jim Paglia. “If you only allow men in certain aspects of a child’s life—like sports—that child will grow with certain deficiencies.”

As fathers answer the call to join parent groups, those organizations are beginning to adapt to the changes that fathers bring. Some are rolling out programs to tap fathers’ growing interest, and others are dismantling barriers that have made men feel unwelcome. And by their mere presence, these trailblazing men are encouraging more men to join. That’s certainly been the experience of Eddie Myles, who this year is copresident with Mike Remotigue of Starkville’s Sudduth Elementary School PTA. “When wives see us involved, they tell their husbands, ‘If he can do it, you can, too. He’s as busy as you are,’ ” says Myles.

Whether it grows out of an urge to be closer to their kids or from plain old peer pressure, fathers’ involvement in parent groups can have a substantial impact. For one thing, it nearly doubles the number of eligible volunteers for parent groups that are often scrambling for members. And on a deeper level, fathers’ involvement in schools can have a profound impact on children’s education.

According to a 1997 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, children do better in school when their fathers are involved. The study found that children in two-parent families in which the father is highly involved get better grades, enjoy school more, and are less likely to repeat a grade, compared with kids from families in which only mothers are highly involved. In addition, the study found that children do better in school when their fathers take an active role even if their fathers do not live with them.

“The study tells me that if America’s dads got as involved as America’s moms in their children’s education, America’s children would be studying harder and getting a lot more A’s”, said former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Other studies show that fathers participation enhances children’s ability to make choices and solve problems. “One of the best predictors of whether kids succeed academically is the fathers’ involvement,” says James A. Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York City. First, says Levine, when a father shows an interest in a child’s schoolwork, the father’s values are clearly communicated to his child. And second, teachers take notice when fathers show up, he says. “The whole support system around the child gets more engaged. Mom is engaged, Dad is engaged, and so is the teacher. Dad acts as a trigger for the whole system.”

Though Levine bases his opinions on decades of research, his findings come as no surprise to Ronald Owens, father of a third-grade daughter and vice president of the Northwest Elementary School PTO in Pflugerville, Texas. “Children feel more important when their dads are around,” says Owens, one of two men involved in his PTO. He says when he walks through the school, children frequently tell him, “I wish I had a dad like you.”

He knows the comments are compliments, but he admits that they make him uncomfortable, prompting thoughts of how sad those children’s fathers would be to hear that. “I try to put myself in the kids’ position,” says Owens. “I would have liked someone to spend that kind of time with me when I was their age.” Spurred by those feelings, Owens plans to launch a campaign to recruit fathers this spring.

Barriers Remain

Fathers who have tried to drum up male recruits often encounter entrenched resistance to joining groups traditionally seen as women’s turf. “Schools don’t always welcome dads,” says Sean Scanlon, executive director of the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative, the first statewide, nonprofit fathers organization. “You hear stories about dads coming into schools and being questioned about why they’re there.” That may be motivated by safety concerns, he says, but it doesn’t send a signal to fathers that they’re welcome participants in their children’s education. And within parent groups, the culture has often been skewed toward mothers. “There’s definitely an issue of acceptance and openness that has to be addressed,” says Scanlon.

Paglia, the former PTA president from Aurora, Ill., agrees. “The culture has not been welcoming to men,” he says. He recalls attending a workshop at a national PTA conference on how to get men involved. Women were lined up at the microphone pronouncing men’s roles. One woman boldly stated, “We have to teach men what their roles are in the PTA.” Paglia was incensed and fired back, “There’s not one thing you can teach me about being a father. You need to get out of my way!”

Paglia maintains that parent groups will fail to attract fathers as long as they say to men, “Here’s the job. Do you want it?” What they should communicate instead, he says, is, “Here’s how we’ve done it in the past. How would you do it differently?”

However men are asked to participate, it’s crucial that they are asked in some way. “Men haven’t been encouraged to become involved by their peers, by their spouses, or by teachers,” says Paglia. “People don’t usually volunteer for anything unless someone asked them to do it specifically.”

It’s impossible to point the finger at any one group—even the dads themselves—for fathers’ historical lack of involvement. “Everyone is culpable: dads, moms, school personnel. It’s a community issue,” says the Fatherhood Project’s Levine. He emphasizes that schools have to make it clear that they are looking specifically for fathers—not just “parents”—to get involved. “If you say ‘parent,’ that translates as ‘mother,’ ” says Levine. “You’ve got to be very explicit that you mean mothers and fathers.”

Levine stresses that it’s also essential to create opportunities for nonresident fathers. “It’s important to send the message that we want to include all parents,” he says. “Both parents have an impact on the child’s life.”

Mark Cribben never noticed any barriers to being involved in his children’s education. But then again, he probably wasn’t looking for them. Cribben has been involved in school parent groups for 24 years, and he now serves as the vice president of home and community services for the Illinois PTA. Over the past few years, Cribben says he has seen a small but steady increase in fathers becoming involved. “The groups are getting away from being cookie bakers and now are decisionmakers,” he says. “Men are interested in that.”


Make Room for Daddy

Encouraging fathers to become involved is not complicated, according to parent group leaders from around the country. Here are some strategies and tips from father volunteers.

  1. Ask for volunteers. Just like women, men respond better if they’re asked directly to join in. “We say, ‘Hey men! We need you to help out,’ ” says Eddie Myles, copresident of the Sudduth Elementary PTA in Starkville, Miss.

  2. Avoid “Dear Parent” letters. “Dear Parent” is code for “Dear Mom,” says Jim Paglia, past president of the Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary PTA in Aurora, Ill. If you have a mailing directed to fathers, make sure it greets them as “Dear Dad.”

  3. Make room for two parents. Northwest Elementary School in Pflugerville, Texas, used to send home volunteer forms with space for just one name. But now it leaves space for two, encouraging both mom and dad to sign up.

  4. Create events for dads. Career Day and Dads Day on Campus are popular programs that encourage fathers to come to school. Once dads are in the door and can see how much their kids appreciate it, they are encouraged to be involved further.

  5. Found a Dads Club. At Denham Oaks Elementary in Lutz, Fla., the PTA created a Dads Club to encourage fathers to become active. The group plans its own activities and fundraisers, and members are encouraged to attend regular PTA meetings. The Denham Oaks Dads Club held its first golf tournament last year, raising $4,000 dollars. And it hosts movie nights, trips to local sporting events, and an annual Dads Day on Campus.

  6. Catch them when you can. To boost dads’ involvement at Northwest Elementary School in Pflugerville, Texas, PTO Vice President Ronald Owens will be cornering fathers wherever he sees them—as they drop children off at school or when they attend PTO-sponsored events. And he stresses that involvement can be as small as just dropping by to have lunch with a child.

  7. Stagger meeting times. Lack of time or overcommitment are common objections among fathers. To help overcome that, the Dads Club at Denham Oaks alternates its meeting times each month between Tuesday and Thursday nights.

A Special Dads’ Night

When Jim Paglia was president of the Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary School PTA in Aurora, Ill., he wanted to create a program that would showcase the shared talents of fathers and their children. So he conceived “Me and He,” a one-night show that invited children and their male role models to demonstrate their hobbies and talents.

They created a display area in the school’s multipurpose room, where dads and kids showed what they do together. Displays included a 30-foot canoe a dad and child were building, a motocross bike, and an elaborate stained-glass work.

In the adjacent demonstration room, dads and kids performed. Some sang karaoke, and others played instruments, told trivia, or did karate.

Along with his daughter Kailey, 10, and son Tate, 8, Paglia painted his face blue, donned a black suit, and played instruments made of plastic piping—the family’s rendition of the popular Blue Man Group.

In each of its first two years, the Me and He program attracted 120 families. It was so popular, in fact, that Paglia had to encourage moms not to attend for fear they would exceed the school’s capacity.

At the end of each event, Paglia told the dads, “I never had any doubt you were talented. Now I want you to bring some of your other talents to the PTA.”

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