Mark Moran works in Washington and doesn't get home to Howard County until 7:30 p.m. most days. Because of his schedule, he rarely volunteers in the classroom or goes to events at Bellows Spring Elementary School, where his son, Josh, is in third grade.
But on Wednesday, Moran worked from home instead of commuting to his office so that he could take part in a program for fathers called Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students), a national program making its Maryland debut at Bellows Spring in Ellicott City.
Moran and nearly 200 other Bellows Spring fathers, uncles, grandfathers and other men filled rows of fold-out seats in the school cafeteria, munching on pizza and cookies while learning about the program, designed to increase fathers' involvement in schools. Children were invited, too. After watching a video promoting the benefits of Watch D.O.G.S., the kids went to the gym to learn about fire safety, while the men heard more details about how they could get involved.
A cornerstone of the program is encouraging men to volunteer at school, both to improve school safety and to provide male role models
"My wife showed me the brochure and she said, 'Here's a great opportunity for you to go as a dad,'" said Moran, who added that he plans to sign up for volunteer time. His company allows a paid community service day, he said, and he thinks being in his son's school will qualify.
"Josh loves when I come to school for something," he said. "I think it's great they're doing it here."
Laurie Lerman, the PTA president, said her goal was to get 20 men to attend the event. Nearly 200 came.
"We never expected something like this, but it doesn't surprise me," Ed Cosentino, the school's assistant principal said to the audience.
He said team leaders and other school officials were overwhelmingly in favor of the idea. "Our goal and Laurie's vision is to institutionalize it and make it part of our normal day," he said.
Joseph Thweatt attended the event with his twin 5-year-old daughters, Lindsay and Nia, who are in kindergarten.
"I think it's great," he said. "When they sent the information home, I said, This is something I'll definitely do.'"
Lerman heard about the program through a friend, Jodi Westrope, who had moved from the Bellows Spring school district to West Virginia. The program was started by the National Center for Fathering, initiated by parent Jim Moore in response to a 1998 middle-school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark.
The first Watch D.O.G.S. program was in Springdale, Ark. Now, the program is in more than 500 schools in 25 states. Westrope and Dan Jenkins, who both attended the Bellows Spring kick-off, started the program in a Martinsville, W.Va., elementary and middle school. When Westrope saw the positive response in her home town, she began promoting the program to Lerman.
"She had been telling me about the program," said Lerman. "We didn't know something like this existed."
Lerman said fathers bring "a unique set of skills" to the school. For example, they are more likely than mothers to help out with recess games, she said.
"The idea is we have at least one Watch D.O.G.S. [member] in the building every day," Lerman said.
The volunteers wear Watch D.O.G.S. T-shirts, and are promised time in their child's class.
"Please know that when you are here, you will not be doing clerical work," Amy Colman, the Gifted and Talented Resource specialist told the audience. "You will be with the children."
As the program grows, a Donuts and Dads morning event probably will be added, as well as an end-of-year celebration, Lerman said.
Andy Echague, father of kindergartner Christian, 6, volunteered at the school for the first time when he helped hand out pizza slices before the presentation. At the end of the evening, he was leaning over his pizza table, filling out a registration form so he could volunteer in the Watch D.O.G.S. program. He said he hopes to visit the school four or five times before the end of the academic year.
"I just thought it was a neat program," he said.