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Zander Hartgrove, 5, was extremely excited to see his father in the Cradlerock School cafeteria. In fact, he gave him a big hug and a kiss.

The scene was repeated time and again as dozens of kindergartners at the school ate a Thanksgiving-inspired lunch with their fathers during the sixth annual Meals With Magnificent Men on Nov. 20. The event encourages fathers and father figures to eat lunch with their children, thus increasing their presence in the school.

"I want him to know that his father is in his life and that I do care," said Steven Hartgrove, Zander's father. "I'm here to support him in this phase in his life. I'd rather not be anywhere else right now than to be here with him."

Larry Walker, a Howard County parent who won the Comcast Parent of the Year for 2008, attended the event to give some words of encouragement to the men before lunch was served. He was pleasantly surprised when he could barely find a parking spot at the school.

"This makes all the difference in the world to support them and encourage them," Walker said. "I want to show parents that getting involved in education is easy. This is tremendous. I look forward to it next year."

Andre Holmes Sr. said he came to Cradlerock to support his son, Andre Jr.

"He's an important part of my life," Holmes said.

The father and son spent lunch talking about the importance of excelling in school.

"We talked about behaving in school and what he's doing in class," Holmes said.

Principal Jason McCoy was pleased by the turnout.

"This by far has been the best we've ever had," McCoy said. "We had to turn away some of the volunteers. In the past, we had to use eighth-graders to fill in."

McCoy attributed this year's high turnout to years of practice.

"We have this down to a science," McCoy said with a laugh.

School officials have begun to link participation in the event with increased student achievement.

Eighty-five percent of the students who had a male family member participate in the meal were deemed ready in a state assessment for kindergartners. Ninety percent of students who had a male participate in a second activity the school offers called Games With Great Men, which encourages males to come to the school and play games with the students, were deemed ready in the assessment.

"If our goal is success in school, with these programs our children can't fail," said Anne Yenchko, director of the Judy Center, which offers pre-kindergarten education for area children. The Judy Center and Cradlerock School have teamed for Meals With Magnificent Men the past six years.

In addition to Meals With Magnificent Men and Games Wth Great Men, Cradlerock School will also offer this year Building With Great Guys, where men will help students with carpentry activities.

"It's great that they are here today, but we hope that this will continue," McCoy said.

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