“Mr. Watchdog, I need ketchup.”
It’s lunchtime at Raymore Elementary School in Cass County. No waiters there, but when a young one summons “Mr. Watchdog” to bring a condiment, it’s not wishful thinking.
Men like Scott Moots and Galan Hill are likely to respond.
They are members of the Watch DOGS — Dads of Great Students — at their children’s school. The national program, part of the Kansas City-based National Center for Fathering, puts volunteers in classrooms with the aim of being a positive male influence and an unobtrusive security presence.
Watch DOGS volunteers often rise early to report for duty.
So it was with Moots and Hill, who checked in at 8:20 that Tuesday morning at the office of Raymore Elementary and the Early Childhood Center in the Raymore-Peculiar School District.
They picked up their official name badges, maps of the building and their schedules for the day from arrival through dismissal. They then helped students in the car line outside.
Moots is the father of Landan Moots, a first-grader, and Hill is the father of second-grader Kalon Hill-Beard and third-grader Kaison Hill-Beard. Hill was taking a vacation day from his job as a salesman, and Moots, a minister, has Tuesdays off.
Hill was on his second Watch DOGS visit this semester to the school, which has averaged at least one Watch DOGS volunteer a day since the program started there in the 2012-13 school year. He was there to celebrate Kaison’s 9th birthday after having visited in January on Kalon’s birthday.
At 8:30 a.m., Moots and Hill headed to their children’s classrooms. Moots and his son took turns reading a story about Greece, “Terror at Troy.”
“It’s really good for me,” Landan said, “because I have both parents here.”
His mother, Laura Moots, teaches first grade at Raymore Elementary.
From 8:50 to 10:10 a.m., the Watch DOGS members helped out in classrooms, including Catie Spencer’s prekindergarten class.
When Moots and Hill entered her room of 4- and 5-year-olds, Spencer was conducting a scientific experiment involving ice water and a lined plastic bag that contained Crisco. A small group of students plunged their hands into the ice water to test its temperature. Then they put their hands into the bag, tested the water again and felt the difference.
The shortening showed the children how blubber insulates animals and keeps them warm in the winter, Spencer said.
While the group of children with Spencer absorbed the science lesson, Hill and Moots joined groups of other students who were playing. Almost magnetically, the two Watch DOGS members were surrounded by curious little learners.
When playtime ended, Hill and Moots began picking up toys and putting them away. The children noticed and pitched in.
From 10:10 to 10:25 a.m., it was kindergarten recess. When it’s comfortable outside, Watch DOGS fathers go out on the playground with the students.
“Sometimes I have a whole playground of kids chasing me playing freeze tag,” Hill said.
But the playground isn’t where the most exhausting action happens — it’s the lunchroom.
Lunch is from 10:55 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Moots described that part of the day as “the funniest part and the most tiring.”
Over the next two hours, 450 hungry students in kindergarten through fourth grade filed into the lunchroom and took their places at tables.
Their pent-up energy was unleashed as they ate, chatted with classmates and raised their hands for help.
Moots moved constantly between tables. The dads opened little cartons of chocolate milk, took foil lids off applesauce, wiped up spills, cleared tables, assisted the lunchroom monitors and responded to requests.
After lunch, Moots and Hill continued helping in classrooms or the library. They also walked the halls and patrolled the perimeter of the school.
“One day I was walking the halls and saw a student not wanting to go to his classroom like his teacher was telling him to do,” Hill recalled. “I stopped and said to him, ‘Hey, you need to do what your teacher is telling you.’
” The student quit balking and went class, Hill said.
The school’s 124 Watch DOGS volunteers “are like celebrities,” said Principal Michelle Hofmann.
There’s more to the Watch DOGS movement than providing an extra pair of hands to busy school staffers.
“Our own research shows that children excel and do better when Dad is involved in a child’s education,” said Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering. “Kids also make healthier decisions when a father is in their lives.”
Casey cited studies that found 33 percent of children in the United States don’t live with their biological fathers. Of those, 25 percent live in households with only a mother.
But the Watch DOGS program started in 1998 with the more immediate goal of making schools safer. On March 24 of that year, two boys killed five people and wounded 10 when they opened fire on a middle school playground in Jonesboro, Ark.
The tragedy touched fathers in their roles as protector and provider of the family, said Chris Danenhauer, national senior program developer of Watch DOGS.
“The day before the shooting, less than 15 percent of dads dropped off children at the school,” Danenhauer said. “When school resumed, more than 85 percent of the dads drove their children to school.”
Dads came together at George Elementary School in Springdale, Ark., to provide additional security, and one of those original volunteers is now the national director of Watch DOGS.
The program has evolved to include academic support and direct interaction with students, catching on across the country in the process. In 2006, Watch DOGS affiliated with the National Center for Fathering.
Now nearly 4,000 men are in Watch DOGS in 46 states. Watch DOGS members volunteer at schools in China, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada, as well. By the end of June, the center projects that 400,000 volunteers worldwide will have spent a full day at a school in the 2013-14 academic year.
Watch DOGS members may be assigned to play educational games with small groups of children or help students who are struggling with a particular subject. They keep individual students on task by sitting next to them in class and offer words of encouragement from someone besides the teacher.
Being a father of a student isn’t a requirement, but many of the Kansas City area schools require that the Watch DOGS volunteers be relatives. Grandfathers, stepfathers, uncles and other men can participate with the parents’ authorization.
Elsewhere in the country, churches, clubs and other community organizations have adopted a school where members volunteer for Watch DOGS.
Being Watch DOGS members helps the fathers, too.
“The program is popular, exciting and fulfills an emotional need for Dad,” said Casey of the National Center for Fathering. “After their first visit to a school, the Watch DOG fills out a survey, and 90 percent say they would do it again.”
Squirming impatiently in his chair, eager to be the first with an answer, a first-grader called out, “Lipfish.”
“Hmm what is that?” Eric Thompson asked of the four first-graders gathered around him. Thompson was leading students at Pathfinder Elementary School in the Platte County R-3 School District in a game to form compound words from two columns of nouns.
“A fish with big lips,” a girl explained.
Students giggled and continued to call out creative compound words — “Lipbug!” “Lipcake!” — before scoring points with the correct answer, “lipstick.”
A few weeks later at Chinn Elementary School in the Park Hill district, Bob Howard read to students, gave a hand to kids too small to reach food in the lunchroom and helped children catch air on the playground swings.
Howard’s third-grade daughter, Aspyn Howard, is proud to stand with him in front of the camera for the morning video announcements when he volunteers. Then she gets to sit with him at lunch and hear him read to her class. Plus she wears a special vest like the volunteers do when he’s at the school.
“My daughter really gets a kick out of it, because she gets kind of queen-of-the-day status,” Howard said.
Thompson’s visit to Pathfinder Elementary School started in the library, where he read a chapter of a book with a group of advanced readers. His next stop was the classroom of his daughter, Aysha Thompson, a first-grader in Stephanie Seigel’s class. Aysha, 7, greeted her dad with a big hug and a smile.
“It’s a really big deal to children,” Seigel said. “They feel a sense of pride that Dad is helping out.”
But it isn’t just the volunteers’ own children who adore the special attention of Watch DOGS members. Everywhere they go, the men get hugs, high-fives, shy “heys” and respectful glances. They are easy to spot. Most wear white T-shirts or polo shirts with the Watch DOGS logo and an official “Dog Tag” name badge.
“I really like having them help us with learning — and at recess,” said Dominic Kogan, 7, a second-grader at Pathfinder, who estimates that about 16 Watch DOGS volunteers have visited his classroom this year.
Watch DOGS fathers stand out, especially in grade schools where most positions are filled by women. Among the Raymore Elementary staff of 72, for example, only four are men. School volunteers also tend to be mothers or other women.
“At the elementary level, we have mostly female volunteers,” said Lee Heinerikson, the principal at Chinn Elementary. “This program lends itself to bringing males into the school.”
Such a skewed ratio of women to men is not unusual, and that’s where Watch DOGS come in — as positive male role models. Overwhelmingly, the program is strongest and most popular in grade school.
Grandview High School, for example, tried the Watch DOGS program in 2010. It didn’t last, said district spokesman John Baccala, but school officials adapted some features of the program to meet their students’ needs.
Age plays a role. In grade schools, the dads are called “Heroes of the Hallways.” But an older child’s reaction may be less enthusiastic.
“I want to be there while my kids are young and can enjoy having me around,” said Woody Acosta, the Top Dog at Chinn. “Later, they may not find it so cool to have Dad around.”
Acosta has two daughters at Chinn and has been a Watch DOGS volunteer for three years. Now as Top Dog, his job is to keep all volunteers informed through a monthly letter and to recruit others through presentations at school events twice a year.
Because the men stand out, Manchester Park Elementary School in the Olathe school district calls out the Watch DOGS members on “high-guest volume days, like our Grandparent Days or Fall Festival Parties,” said Principal Susan DeGroot. “We have five to six more Watch DOGS (members) for an additional level of safety.”
For such occasions, Watch DOGS fathers are stationed in the parking lot, at doors, at the entrance and in the hallways.
On a regular school day, Manchester Park has at least two Watch DOGS volunteers “because we need a limit to give all an opportunity,” DeGroot said.
Carl Walston said he signs up in August during school registration so he can be assured of a day at his son’s school.
Only 160 school days are available to Watch DOGS members, he said, but there are more than 200 volunteers in a school of some 630 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Walston has been a Watch DOGS father since the 2009-2010 school year when his son, Henry, was in kindergarten. Henry, 9, is now a fourth-grader.
“My favorite part is when Dad sits down and eats lunch with me,” Henry said. “It comforts me.”
Walston said he has gained an appreciation for and perspective of what teachers are doing in the classroom.
“I see their love and devotion, hard word and professionalism,” Walston said, and he echoed a familiar refrain: “By the end of the day, I’m exhausted.”