COLUMBIA — Andrew Belcher, Gerik Parmele and Greg Blakemore are fathers of Parkade Elementary School students. But when they enter Parkade in their yellow and purple T-shirts, they are no longer just fathers, but WATCH D.O.G.S (Dads of Great Students).
The WATCH D.O.G.S. program was launched this school year after Carrie Freeman, Parkade’s assistant principal, raised the idea at a spring 2009 PTA meeting. The program brings in fathers, uncles and other men to perform various activities at Parkade throughout the day.
The Web site is found through fathers.com.
If you are interested in participating in WATCH D.O.G.S., contact Parkade Assistant Principal Carrie Freeman at (573) 214-3630 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I’ve had experience with the WATCH D.O.G.S. program at the last school that I was in, and it was a very powerful influence getting those male role models to your school," Freeman said. "I wanted to bring that to our school.”
WATCH D.O.G.S. originated in 1998 after a middle school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark. Founder Jim Moore began the program as a way to prevent violence in schools. Today there are more than 1,500 programs active in the United States and New Zealand.
Although Belcher had heard about the WATCH D.O.G.S program, he did not volunteer until after the September PTA meeting. At the meeting, about 200 fathers ate pizza as they watched a video that further explained the program; afterward, they were able to sign up for specific days. PTA president Amy Larson said they would love to have a father at Parkade every day, but it takes some time to figure out the fathers' schedules.
On a recent Thursday, Belcher, proudly wearing his WATCH D.O.G.S. T-shirt, said that when he had arrived for his shift, he was given an itinerary and map of the school. First stop: Tonya Henry’s second-grade class, where he corrected students as they practiced writing. Afterward, he helped kindergartners learn about food groups and the food pyramid by making yogurt cups in Kaye Voth’s class.
Parmele spent that same morning in Buffy Stapleton's kindergarten class, where he spent time with his daughter and helped the majority of students with rhyming bingo while the teacher worked with individual students. Later, Parmele channeled his inner child as he built leaf piles for Parkade preschoolers to run and jump through.
“It’s really fun to get on their level and be a kid again,” Parmele said. “And in that way you can kind of relate to them and just be a positive influence with them by interacting and coming alongside them.”
At lunchtime, the fathers monitor the lunchroom and then watch the children at recess. But Belcher’s favorite part of the day is when he gets to act as a hall monitor.
“This is the cool part that I like — I get a free pass to run the hallway," he said. "You just hang out in the hallway, make sure if somebody’s in the hall, (you ask) ‘You got a pass, where are you going, everything OK?’ I’m not the wicked-witch hall-man, nothing like that, just making sure they are OK.”
For both of these fathers, being a positive male influence for the students is only part of the reason they volunteer.
“It makes the kids feel good, and they’ve got a smile on their face," Belcher said. "It’s not about you; it’s about the kids.”
Belcher said it allows him to see how his children interact with other students and monitor how they are behaving so he knows what to expect when parent-teacher conferences roll around. It also keeps him active in his children's lives and helps their self-esteem knowing that someone cares.
“You know they say it takes a village to raise a child,” Belcher said. “You just can’t send your child to school and expect the school to raise them and help them and teach them stuff. That’s all part of the WATCH D.O.G.S. program. You need to be active and vocal with what is going on with your child.”
Parmele's daughter was excited about her dad going to school. “She’s been talking about ‘When is WATCH D.O.G.S. day?’ for weeks ever since the program started,” he said, chuckling.
Because he usually drops her off at her grandparents’ house before school, Parmele decided to make a big deal out of this day by taking her out to breakfast at Broadway Diner, where they had some extra father-daughter time over French toast. He said that by sitting through her kindergarten class in the morning, it helped broaden his understanding of her school days and become familiar with her friends.
But this day was not just about bonding with his daughter at school.
“Fatherhood is important to me, and so I wanted to be involved in things that are a part of not only being a father, but being a father figure," Parmele said. "So it’s heavy on my heart that I want to be a good dad, and that’s one of the best things that I can do with my life. And so if I can do something that helps me in a way, and helps other kids, it just seems like the right thing to do.”
During Blakemore’s lunchtime shift, he helped by bringing students ketchup and silverware and cleaning up their trash. That morning, he spent time in several classrooms helping students write stories, something he hopes to do more often as he thinks about becoming more involved in the classroom.
“I’ve thought about student teaching, and this would be a good way to decide if I could probably handle the environment, the kids and stuff,” Blakemore said.
Although there is informal talk of starting the program in other schools, Parkade is the only Columbia public school that has implemented WATCH D.O.G.S. Larson hopes the program will take off and has been encouraging the Columbia PTA Council to expand the program.
And expansion is also the role of the “top dogs.” Each dad acts as a sort of spokesman to keep the momentum and excitement of the program going while sharing it with others in the community.
“I think if it’s doing this well already at Parkade, then it can do very well at other schools, too,” Larson said. “I think that this can be a really awesome program for Columbia schools.”
Although the WATCH D.O.G.S. program is new to Columbia, Freeman sees the effect the program has had on some fathers.
“Sometimes fathers are kind of shy," she said. "But by the end of the day, when they walk into the office, they are carrying their walkie-talkies and standing a little bit taller.”