Jeromy Felts juggles three jobs.
And up until a few months ago, he hadn’t spent much time in his daughters’ school.
“I really didn’t know how school operated, and what happens on a day-to-day basis,” said Felts, 35, of Lacey. “It was actually kind of intimidating to walk onto campus.”
Now, through a program called Watch DOGS, Felts is considered a regular face on campus at Seven Oaks Elementary School. He
He volunteers one or two full days each month through the program, an initiative run by the National Center for Fathering. DOGS stands for “Dads Of Great Students,” but the program is designed for any male role model, including stepfathers, grandpas, uncles and big brothers.
“This has taught me that guys and dads are just as valuable in the process as the moms can be,” Felts said.
In schools across the country, Watch DOGS is trying to erase the myth that tutoring, parent-teacher conferences and other school activities are, well, women’s work.
“I think it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened in school, I’m convinced of that,” said kindergarten teacher Melody Anderson. “The dads have a lot of energy, and they pass that energy on to the kids.”
Not to take anything away from all of those moms and grandmas who have baked goodies for teacher luncheons, made popcorn for movie nights, spent hours cutting out shapes of construction paper, and helped classroom teachers on a regular basis – the teachers still depend on them. But having a program that specifically recruits men to volunteer at school has brought a new level of parent involvement, say staff members at the Lacey-area school.
“It’s just a nice twist to have the fathers come in,” said first-grade teacher Jennifer Johnston. “They’re a different kind of role model.”
Watch DOGS was founded by Jim Moore, an elementary school dad who wanted to take action in response to a 1998 middle-school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark. Moore’s goal was to informally beef up school security while providing extra academic and emotional support for kids.
And it’s working, said Seven Oaks principal Ron Sisson.
“It’s nice because there are kids who have dads deployed or maybe don’t have a dad at home, and it’s that extra connection that they get with a dad or a male person during the day,” he said.
About 130 schools across the state have implemented the program, including ones in Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Puyallup, and Federal Way. More than 1,650 schools across the country and in New Zealand offer the program. All told, more than 70,000 men will serve as a Watch DOGS volunteer this year, according to the National Center for Fathering.
At Seven Oaks, a Watch DOGS flag is raised every time there’s a volunteer for the program on campus. The dads are given an “official dog tag” with their name printed on it, a premium parking space, and an itinerary that often begins with helping direct morning traffic in front of the school and ends with high-fives for kids while they are boarding school buses in the afternoon.
“They have a taste of all aspects of our school,” said dean of students Angie DeAguiar. “They don’t spend the whole time with their child.”
Felts said some of the tasks aren’t easy. Take, for example, helping fifth-grade students with math problems.
“Oh my word, I hadn’t done long division in years,” Felts said, chuckling. “You never know which teacher you’re going to get and what they’re going to have you do.”
On a recent day, duties included helping Johnston’s class survive picture day. At one point, Felts helped console a little girl who was having what she considered a major fashion crisis.
Seven Oaks officials launched Watch DOGS during an all-dads pizza feed last fall, and asked dads to consider volunteering one entire day during the school year.
For many of the dads, it only took one day to decide that they wanted to be more involved in their children’s school and to sign up as a volunteer on a weekly or monthly basis.
Between October and March, 84 dads clocked in more than 565 volunteer hours at the school – the equivalent of about 65 school days, DeAguiar said.
Some of the men have taken personal days or vacation time from their jobs to help at the school, Sisson said. Several work nights and volunteer for a Watch DOGS shift on their way home. A few have devoted precious days of R&R leave from the military for the program.
“It’s honestly very rare when we don’t have a dad in the building,” Sisson said.
On a recent afternoon, fourth-grader Sophia Gordon’s face lit up when her dad, Tracy, walked into her classroom. It was his first Watch DOGS shift, and she’d been waiting for months for his turn to finally arrive.
“They get to see what we do,” Sophia said. “It’s cool because the dad gets to hang out with the kids.”
After a day of making booklets for kindergartners, helping in reading and math classes, and an assortment of other activities, Tracy Gordon walked into DeAguiar’s office to sign up for another Watch DOGS shift for next month.
The 43-year-old Lacey resident owns an auto repair shop in Shelton so financially it’s not easy to give up a day’s worth of work.
But Sophia is his youngest child, and he said he wants to make the most of the time he has left with her.
“I’d recommend doing it,” he said. “It will bring you closer to your kid.”
Lisa Pemberton Butler: 360-754-5433 firstname.lastname@example.org