Rodney Burris went into the 2013-14 school year with a specific objective: to get more dads involved with Tunbridge Public Charter School.
“My broader goal for the school year was to bring in members of the parent population that would not normally come to events, but my subgoal was to get more dads at the events,” says the president of the PTO at the elementary and middle school in Baltimore, Md.
Burris—the father of a kindergartner, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grader—kept up the initiative all year with guy-centered programming like WrestleMania and March Madness viewing parties. The big success of the school year, though, was the Tunbridge Day by the Bay fishing derby in the spring. George Adams, an avid fisherman and father of a Tunbridge 7th grader, proposed the idea to Burris, pitching it as a fun event to get kids and their dads outside.
Burris jokes that the event was publicized much differently than the typical “day in the park” PTO event. “We didn’t market it like that,” he says. “You have to speak the language of your target population. That was a big part of the success. It was spoken in guy terms....A lot of our messaging to get the dads out to the event was centered around the words ‘fishing derby.’”
He got out this message through texts and e-blasts to parents as well as flyers in students’ backpacks. Burris also stood in the school parking lot holding handmade posters with large printed advertisements for the derby.
Despite the father-centric promotion, the PTO encouraged all family members to come fish. “We had a few hundred people attend, and it wasn’t all dads,” Burris says. “Students brought their moms, aunts, grandmothers, and siblings.”
The derby was held at a public county pier on the Chesapeake Bay, so the group did not need a permit to fish—just for the pavilion next to the pier for an accompanying picnic. The fishing event was split into 45-minute blocks of time, and students came throughout the day. One volunteer was assigned to five children and their parents. Five groups fished during each time block.
All of the volunteers had been fishing their entire lives and were licensed fishermen in Maryland. Parents without a license were not allowed to fish, but Adams says they stood by their children, learned about fishing, asked the volunteers questions, and enjoyed the experience. (Children younger than 16 do not need a license to fish in the state.)
“When children would show up in their time block, a volunteer would talk to them and their parents about fishing and conservation,” Adams says. Then the students learned how to bait the hooks, how to catch a fish, and how to put the fish back in the water afterward, a practice known as catch and release.
Adams brought 30 fishing poles (some his, some borrowed) and put five poles in a bucket at each station. He also had five extra poles on hand for quick replacements in case a child got one tangled.
“If you caught a fish, we took your picture, measured your fish, and kept a running tab of who caught what species and how long the fishes were in inches,” Adams says. He purchased trophies for the 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-place winners with the biggest fish in both the older grades and the younger grades, as well as the overall girl and the overall boy. A local tackle shop donated fishing poles as prizes, and a bike, erasers, and folders were also given out. And every student was recognized with a certificate of participation.
Tunbridge’s principal took money out of the school’s budget to purchase food to grill at the derby, and parents supplemented this with a potluck.
“It was really easy to do and does not cost a lot of money, as long as you have the resources,” Adams says. “I hope other schools see this as a great event.”
Burris says the derby drew more dads than they had ever seen at a Tunbridge event. “Hands down, our school’s first-ever fishing derby was the most notable event the parents hosted this year,” he says. “The weather was great and the venue was perfect. [A] good time was had by all!”
Tunbridge Public Charter School PTO
450 students, grades preK-8
Setting Up for the Day by the Bay
Begin developing ideas for fishing derby event and picnic.
Advertise event to school parents through text messages, posters, and emails.
Solicit prizes from local business owners; purchase trophies.
Get money from principal to purchase food to grill at picnic.
Post sign-up sheet in front office for parents to bring food, charcoal, tongs, and ice for potluck.
Coordinate with county recreation and parks department for needed permits.
Day before event: Purchase 12 dozen nightcrawlers as bait.
Day of event: Set up prizes; set up food at reserved picnic pavilion; prepare grills; rig fishing poles; place fishing poles in buckets at fishing stations by pier.