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Eric Snow: Getting “Top D.O.G.” dads to help out at school

Eric SnowEric Snow is national director of Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students — www.fathers.com/watchdogs), a program focusing on education and safety in children’s schools by using the positive influence of fathers and father-figures. The volunteers demonstrate by their presence that education is important, and provide extra sets of eyes and ears to enhance school security and reduce bullying. Fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and uncles are asked to spend at least one day per year at their student’s school volunteering. They support the school that day through monitoring the school property, working one-on-one or in small groups, reading, helping with flashcards and homework, serving as sports referees and generally helping to plant the seeds of success in students’ lives.

Q: Can you give me a brief history of how Watch D.O.G.S. came about?

A: In March of 1998 after a school shooting took place in Jonesboro, Arkansas, founder Jim Moore found that his son was fearful about going to school. The boy said, “Dad, is that something that could happen at our school?” So Jim had the idea to get some dads together and volunteer at his son’s elementary school to be extra eyes and ears – to help teachers out and be a male presence. I got pulled in early on and helped him develop Watch D.O.G.S.

Initially we named it Dads of George students, because it was just one school, George Elementary. We renamed it after a successful meeting at which we invited fathers and father-figures to take a full day off work and help the teachers in everyday school activities. The school let the dads read with kids, do flashcards, serve as hallway monitors and work in the library and lunchroom. It was such a smash hit that other schools in the area picked up on it and our principal was soon invited to present the program at a principal’s conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. As other schools started launching the program, Moore formed a nonprofit. And schools just kept coming and coming to us. In 2006 we merged Watch D.O.G.S. with the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City, and in 2008 we formed a partnership with National Parent Teacher Association.

Q: This is astounding. So how has it changed from the original version?

A: It really hasn’t changed much. We have formalized everything; we can now pass this program off to a school in a startup kit. In three weeks they can be up and running. We still ask guys to take one full day off work per year and spend that day volunteering in their child’s school. The work under the direction of the principal and teachers, and they are always with an educator while they are working with the kids.

Q: And they read to kids among other activities?

A: It varies by school, but reading to kids is one of the top activities we suggest, and schools really look to us for guidelines on how to engage these men. It is probably safe to say that every single Watch D.O.G. serving in an elementary or secondary school finds himself with a book in his hand at some point during his day.

Q: What draws the volunteers?

A: Let me clarify first that we ask for fathers and father figures. We recognize that many times the biological father is not living at home with the child, so in many cases the men who serve are grandfathers or stepfathers or Big Brothers or uncles. They don’t realize how significant their impact is going to be until they have served and seen kids’ and teachers’ responses, and seen how much they are needed at school and in the educational environment.

Q: Tell us about some of the volunteers.

A: A man came to me one time after a workshop we ran and said, “I want you to know what this program means to me. I have been trying for two years to gain the trust of my stepson, who was abandoned by his birth father, mother and little sister. He obviously had trust issues. The first time he called me ‘dad’ was when he introduced me to his teacher the day that I served as a Watch D.O.G.” I think that volunteer and I both needed a Kleenex at that point. I gave him a hug and thanked him for sharing his story.

Even among the tens of thousands of men in thousands of schools, it’s funny how similar the stories are. Educators tell us that even though fifth-graders are normally very independent, when there is a Watch D.O.G. in the lunchroom, they suddenly can’t seem to open their milk carton or Thermos without help. The way the kids respond is pretty humorous and touching. Even kids that have a great mom in their life respond differently when there is a man there during the day. They want to be noticed; they want someone to say “good job, I’m proud of you, way to go.” Also, the guys who have great relationships with their kids tell us time and time again that it really changes the dinner conversation at home. Now their kids start talking about what’s going on at school because Dad has a new point of connection; he has been there. It opens them up because they know that Dad knows where the water fountain is, where the principal’s office is, what the playground looks like, where the lunch room is. It just really opens up more lines of communication.

Q: Are there differences in the ways boys versus girls respond to Watch D.O.G.S.?

A: Anyone who believes that young boys need male role models in schools more than young girls do is definitely underestimating girls’ need. Young women under the age of 18 who do not have a positive adult male role model in their lives have dramatically higher rates of teen pregnancy. These young women are seeking male approval.

Watch D.O.G.S. with daughters often find themselves playing jump rope or jacks at recess. Of course, the boys want high-fives, and they want the guy to be out there playing sports. There are more women in the schools and we say God bless them, but were just trying to put the call out to men because there is a role for them there too. If you don’t believe us, then test us, come out, come to school and see for yourself.

Q: Do you have expansion plans? Might Watch D.O.G.S. go international?

A: We have had inquiries from Canada and Mexico, but we have no plans to go international in the immediate future. We are in 2,400 schools in the United States now, but there are about 100,000 schools we should be in. So we’ve got quite a bit of work to do here yet.

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