“Oh man, all these kids? It’s going to be loud,” John Washington laughs as he explains his first thoughts about stepping into Northeast Elementary as part of their new Dad’s Actively Participating (DAP) program. In the month since the program’s inception, the school has seen the difference these positive male role models have on students.
Across the nation, school districts and families are having conversations surrounding parent engagement in schools, including an increased presence of families during the school day. At Northeast Elementary School, the administration began the Dad’s Actively Participating program, allowing students’ fathers, grandfathers, and more to apply to serve as volunteers with the Pre-K through 5th-grade classes. The school has seen success in similar programs, including one they lovingly call the “Grannies Program,” where retired women can come in to play games and assist with one-on-one help. When Washington, a military veteran and father of three, first learned about the DAP program, he was intrigued.
On this particular day, the school’s noise level was at an all-time high as students nearly burst with excitement for the annual Northeast High Senior Walk. Students lined the halls with colorful signs, posters, and cards, cheering, “Let’s Go Eagles.” Washington embraced the volume and interacted with students, offering high fives and engaging in conversations.
“Number one, I get to spend more time with my kids, but also for those kids who don’t have that father figure,” he said. He explained that the goal is not to step in as a parent or teacher but instead to serve as a consistent presence for children struggling to find a positive male adult.
“A lot of kids, I’ll see them, and they look down,” he says, slumping his shoulders and hanging his head. “So I’ll tap them and say, “What’s up man, what’s wrong with you?” He says even that simple recognition will encourage the children to stand taller, and he hopes to engage them in further conversation.
Studies show that children with a consistent adult male presence perform better academically, socially, and emotionally. Washington shared his perspective, saying, “If you have both parents, cool. Mom talking to you and Dad talking to you is two different things, though, especially to many little boys. There are a lot of dads that want to be here but can’t be here. I’m fortunate to step in and help with that.”
As he interacts with the students, he is mindful of respecting the authority of the teachers. As a football and baseball coach, Washington understands the importance of children building respect and listening to their teacher. Ultimately the DAP participants serve as volunteers to support the faculty and staff. Their role is to show the students that adults are willing to take the time and be present.
There are two different shifts from which volunteers can choose. In the morning, dads will welcome students to school, giving high-fives as they get off the bus and walking students into the building. Mid-morning and into the lunch hour, volunteers will be inside the cafeteria, speaking with students and walking through the halls during transition periods.
Washington cautions that supporting the school and students requires patience. “You are not these kids’ parents,” he said. “You have to be mindful of how you come at them.” The program’s goal is to increase family engagement, which will then positively impact student behavior.
He’s seen the positive impact of his presence first-hand. When he began volunteering, Washington noticed a student struggling to make good choices. After watching how he interacted with other students, Washington said, “You could tell he was not getting the support and needed attention at home.“ He took it upon himself to mindfully connect with the student in simple ways. “Just speaking with him, talking to him, being around him,” he said. The consistent presence produced significant results. Today, Washington says the student will find him in the hallways to share news of his day. “He comes up to me and says, ‘I’m being good today,’ or ‘I’ll be good the rest of the day.’” Washington says the student wants to share his progress, even though their relationship never centered on or discussed behavior.
When asked if he would continue volunteering with the program next year, Washington smiles and says, “I’ll do it as long as my boys are okay with it. They’re still young, so they’re not at that embarrassed stage yet. I’m still Cool Dad.”