When it comes to children and education, parental involvement is crucial. But when one Howard County educator looked around his school, he noticed that parental involvement wasn't, well, paternal.
"Mostly, you see moms at the school, volunteering or with PTAs," said Conrad Brookhart, a physical education teacher at Elkridge Elementary School. "I wanted to find a way to impact dads, get them more involved with their kids at the school."
That's where the school's Just for Dads program comes into play. Founded three years ago by Brookhart with the support of Assistant Principal Tony Esposito, the program started out small: just a handful of fathers getting together over dinner and talking. Now, a Just for Dads event pulls hundreds of people to the school, as it did Oct. 9 when overcast skies and chilly winds did nothing to dampen the spirits at the Just for Dads Fall Festival.
It was the first time the group has orchestrated a festival — in past years they held smaller events, like an ice cream social or a Daddy-Daughter Date Night, Brookhart said. Esposito said he and Brookhart had a good feeling about the first event in 2010, when eight fathers came to the media center and talked about everything on the parenting spectrum, from homework to video games.
"They stayed for three-and-a-half hours," Esposito said. "We knew we had something. Then the ice-cream social followed, and that event was for kids, too, and it just grew and grew. We found out if we involve the kids, the more dads come and that's what we want, for children to spend more time with their dads."
Just for Dads has started to spread to other Howard County schools, too. Atholton Elementary School started up its own group a year after Elkridge, and the two schools sometimes have events together, like when 400 fathers and children went to a Baltimore Orioles game last year.
Since the program took off, Esposito said he's seen more and more fathers at the school, whether it's stopping by to eat lunch with their children or volunteering during recess.
"We're seeing fathers getting more involved with the school," he said. "Especially at the elementary level with parent volunteers, you see more mothers at the school than fathers. But when you, as a father, know there are other fathers are involved at the school and you get to know each other, that removes that unintentional barrier and the involvement grows from there."
Educators are always talking about student performance and behavior, Brookhart said, and it all comes back to a child's home life.
"There's only so much you can do at the school, and kids are a direct reflection of what's happening at home," he said. "When dads step up and take a big part in their child's life, that's going to have a positive impact on the child."
Jeff Tucker, who has two children at Elkridge Elementary and one at Elkridge Landing Middle School joined Just for Dads when it first started.
"My kids wanted me to go, and I'll do anything for my kids," he said. "More and more fathers have gotten involved every year, and it's getting better and better. For dads to be involved like this, it's special. The moms are always involved in some capacity, but to have the dads, the father figures involved in parenting, that's what we need more of in society."
Last week's festival included music, food, face-painting, sports and a pie-eating contest. While the events were fun, something else was taking place as well, said Randy Rimando, who has a student at both Elkridge Elementary and Elkridge Landing Middle.
"We're building relationships with our children," said Rimando. "This is an opportunity for fathers simply to interact with their kids and any chance we get to interact with our children, we should take it."