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More Michigan dads volunteer to help at school

Shawn Lewis, The Detroit News


Royal Oak— He squeezes his 6-foot, 6-inch frame into a tiny chair at a table with animated first-graders.
Chris Lattin patiently pronounces a list of words, while students scribble them down for a spelling test.
But he’s not the teacher. He’s Jack and Abby’s dad.
Jack Lattin, 10, and Abby Lattin, 6, are students at Oakland Elementary School. Their dad belongs to a growing national volunteer group, the WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students), where fathers help with tasks in and around their kids’ schools. Lattin was volunteeringon a recent school day in Abby’s first-grade class.
“It really makes me feel like a rock star, because the kids are so excited to see me,” said Lattin, 42, a medical equipment salesman from Zeeland. The divorced dad visits the school at least twice a month to volunteer and have lunch with his kids in the cafeteria.
“Usually, when you ask your children about their day, they’ll just say, ‘It was OK.’ But this way, I get to actually see how their day is going, and can have meaningful conversations about it with them.”
Students love him.
“You’re funny,” said a giggly Nia Thomas, 6, of Southfield, as he leaned over for a lengthy handshake before exclaiming, “You’re not letting go of it, are you?”
Moms still lead school volunteer efforts, but dads increasingly are becoming more involved with groups like the WATCH D.O.G.S. and the Parent Teachers Association.
In Michigan, WATCH D.O.G.S. is in 134 schools, with 19 others in the pre-launch stage.
A dad leads the national PTA.
“Male membership in PTA has increased from 10-20 percent over the past decade,” said Otha Thornton, who last year became the first African-American male to lead the PTA and the second male president in the history of the organization.
Thornton said the group has actively reached out to men, because when they’re involved, “kids do better academically and are better socially adjusted.”
Few studies address the link between fathers and children’s performance in school. One such study, issued in 2001 by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that “fathers’ involvement in school is associated with a higher likelihood of students getting mostly A’s.”
The WATCH D.O.G.S. K-12 program was founded in 1998 by two dads in a Springdale, Ark., school, and now is in more than 3,793 schools in 46 states, plus Washington, D.C.
Fathers, grandfathers, uncles or other male role models are invited to volunteer at least one day during the school year at their child’s school.
Oakland Elementary’s program, which opened in January, has 36 participating dads.
“Moms have been much more visible than dads at Oakland, and we are trying to narrow that gap,” said Principal Sam Lynch.
WatchDog Roger Walker, who lives in Harper Woods and works in home security, said volunteering inside his children’s Roseville school makes him feel like a hero.
“My kids love seeing me there, and after the other students see you there the first couple of times, they want to hug you, hold on to your pants legs and see who can sit the closest to you,” said Walker, 45, whose daughter, 10, and son, 8, attend Reach Charter Academy in Roseville.
Besides taking small groups of children into the hall to help with reading or math, he also entertains kindergarten classes with music. “My hobby is singing barbershop quartet,” he said. “So I sang a song for the kids, ‘Hinges,’ and at the end of the song, I fell to the ground, like becoming unhinged, and they roared with laughter.”
Although his hours are flexible, he works on commission and has not been able to volunteer as often as he’d like. “If I don’t work, we don’t eat, so it’s not always easy to get to the school to help out,” he said.
Percy Bates, an education professor at the University of Michigan, said a father’s involvement is crucial.
“It is extremely important for fathers to be present in the lives of their children, both boys and girls, at home, school and play,” he said. “While we normally think that the importance is only for the children, fathers benefit as well.”
Chris Lattin’s kids beam while their dad is in their classrooms. Abby smiled while her dad embraced her, as she stood in a circle with her classmates.
“It feels good to have him in my classroom because he’s my daddy,” she said. “I like it when other kids say, ‘Your dad is the
Detroit WatchDog Nate Talbot visits his 12-year-old son’s school almost daily.
“When I drop off my son at school in the mornings, I just go help out with the traffic patrol because it can be dangerous,” said Talbot, who has been volunteering for two years at University Prep Science and Math Middle School.
Talbot, a self-employed Web designer, said his flexible hours allow him time to help every Friday during “enrichment” after school, when he teaches students Web design.
At Oakland Elementary, Doug Gaynier, 46, a senior cost estimator, is the coordinator and designated “top dog” of the WATCH D.O.G.S. He uses vacation time to volunteer at the school, where his son Jacob, 6 ½, is in the first grade.
“Jillian Whalin, a PTA board member, initiated the program at the school and began looking for a male role model, so I stepped up,” Gaynier said.
Eric Snow, executive director of WATCH D.O.G.S., said he and founder Jim Moore created the program at their kids’ school in Springdale, Ark., after two students at a middle school near Jonesboro, Ark., shot four classmates and a teacher to death in March 1998.
“School, historically has been mom’s domain, because dad was working and mom was at home,” said Snow. “Now, most families are two-income families and dad is taking on new roles, so this is a way for them to become more active in the schools.”

From The Detroit News:

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