For the past four years, Carl Walston, 52, has enjoyed at least one day at school every year with his son, Henry.
Henry is 9 and a fourth-grader at Manchester Park Elementary School in the Olathe school district.
“My friends have known my dad since kindergarten,” Henry said. “He helps them with math or spelling.”
Walston is a member of Watch DOGS — Dads of Great Students — at the 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.
“My favorite part is when Dad sits down and eats lunch with me,” Henry said. “It comforts me.”
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, and there are more than 200 volunteers at the school of some 630 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
On a regular school day, Manchester Park has at least two Watch DOGS “because we need a limit to give all an opportunity,” said Principal Susan DeGroot.
At the school, the men not only enjoy a special day with their own children but also help teachers in classrooms, monitor the lunchroom and assist during arrival and dismissal — greeting students, helping them get on or off the bus and keeping the car line moving.
Because the men stand out in a female-dominated environment, the school calls out the dogs on “high-guest volume days, like our Grandparent Days or Fall Festival Parties,” DeGroot said. “We have five to six more Watch DOGS for an additional level of safety.”
For such occasions, Watch DOGS are stationed in the parking lot, at doors, at the entrance and in the hallways.
Throughout the metropolitan area, school districts in every county benefit from hundreds of men volunteering as Watch DOGS. In Johnson County, all six school districts have the program in place.
“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.
In the Blue Valley School District, one of the first Watch DOGS members also was executive vice president with the National Center for Fathering — Peter J. Spokes. In the early 2000s, he attended a breakfast for fathers of students at Overland Trail Elementary School and talked afterward with Principal Steve Marsh about the Watch DOGS program, which was just beginning to take hold nationwide.
Spokes, who has since died, was instrumental in getting the program started and serving as a Watch DOG while two of his sons were students at Overland Trail, Marsh said.
Now the principal at Cedar Hills Elementary School, Marsh said the Watch DOGS have been active since the school opened 10 years ago. “From five minutes into the school day until the end of the day, the students see the fathers at the school,” Marsh said. “They are literally the Big Man on Campus.”
At Indian Valley Elementary School in the Blue Valley district, Watch DOGS dads can be relied upon to respond quickly to requests for extra help with special events such as a field day, the walkathon and other activities, said Principal Steve Heinauer. For example, they helped at the school’s annual carnival recently.
Some 40 Watch DOGS dads assist with 392 Indian Valley students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Last year, the fathers contributed more than 600 volunteer hours. Top Dog is Johnny Johnson, father of three children at the school, who sends out email alerts when extra hands are needed, often on short notice.
“It’s really a great way to show support for the kids, the teaching staff and the administration,” Johnson said.
Watch DOGS volunteers everywhere can attest that students aren’t the only ones learning during a Watch DOGS day.
At Manchester Park, Walston said he has gained an appreciation and perspective of what teachers are doing in the classroom.
“I see their love and devotion, hard work and professionalism,” Walston said and echoed a familiar refrain: “By the end of the day, I’m exhausted.”
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 before scoring points with the correct answer, “lipstick.”
Pathfinder adopted the program this year.
Thompson’s visit to Pathfinder Elementary School started in the library, where he read with a group of advanced readers. His next stop was the classroom of his daughter, Aysha, a first-grader in Stephanie Seigel’s class. Aysha, 7, greeted him with a hug.
“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.
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.
“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.
Watch DOG volunteers like Scott Moots and Galan Hill are likely to respond.
Moots and Hill 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.
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, 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.”
The students’ 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.
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.
“This program lends itself to bringing males into the school,” said Lee Heinerikson, the principal at Chinn Elementary in the Park Hill district.
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.”
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.”