January 6, 2013

Dads play mentor, playmate and guardian as Belgrade Central School 'Watch DOGS'

The program was begun to reduce school violence, but its greatest effect has been connecting fathers to schools and providing male role models in a setting that women traditionally have dominated

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

BELGRADE -- Two months before the Newtown school shooting tragedy, a national organization that formed in response to another school shooting in 1998 established a chapter at Belgrade Central School.

click image to enlarge

Chris Rhoda, center, a volunteer with Watch DOGS, a group of dads that volunteer at Belgrade Central School, sits with students Brandon Denardo, 8, left, and Isabell Frost, 9, in Belgrade on Friday. The group of volunteers was created to provide more of a male presence at school.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

The group, which puts volunteer fathers into schools as "Watch DOGS" -- Dads Of Great Students -- is the only one of its kind in New England, despite establishing 2,600 chapters in 42 states, according to local organizer Chris Rhoda.

The program was begun to reduce school violence, but its greatest effect has been connecting fathers to schools and providing male role models in a setting that women traditionally have dominated.

Most days, Rhoda is working in an office at Thomas College, where he is the vice president of information services.

But when he volunteers as a Watch Dog, he plays many roles in the eyes of the elementary school children -- mentor, hero, security guard, playmate, teaching assistant, friend and father.

On Friday, pairs of first-graders chatting in the hallway stopped, mid-sentence, and watched him walk past, dressed in jeans and a Watch Dogs T-shirt. As a line of students headed outside for a post-lunch recess break, each one gave Rhoda a high-five. A small boy, fidgeting until his Scooby Doo lunchbox banged against his legs, begged Rhoda to join him in building a snow fort.

It's all part of a schedule set for Rhoda by the school. Throughout the day, he greets students as they leave buses and cars to enter the school; volunteers in four classrooms; monitors bathrooms, lunchrooms and the playground; and says goodbye to the children as they leave. In his back pocket, he carries a pack of purple pencils that inform the lucky recipients that they are great students.

The staff members like him, too. Wherever he goes, he is an extra set of hands, ears and eyes looking out for the children's well-being.

When Rhoda squeezed himself into a lunch table made for smaller bodies, his 7-year-old daughter, Emily, sitting beside him, beamed.

"I like to spend the extra time with him," she confided after he left.

Classmate Emma Lee Sanborn called to her from a few seats down.

"You're so lucky," she said.

Like many of the children asked, Emma Lee had a hard time articulating exactly what it is that they like about the presence of Rhoda and the other men in the program.

"When there's a Watch Dog here, I think of my dad," said Isabell Frost, 9.

Diana Glasheen, a reading tutor at the school, said the children just appreciate the variety that a male presence in their classroom offers.

"The kids aren't used to seeing a lot of dads here," she said. "They're exposed to moms more."

She said children do feel safer, but that it's more than that.

"It's just a whole different perspective," she said. "Dads treat them differently."

Rhoda said he enjoys helping the students, whether it's reading to them, being read to by them, or helping to enforce rules of politeness at recess.

"It's just like I'm with my kids, but instead of two there are 300 of them," he said.

Sometimes the first moments can be awkward, according to Glasheen.

"The girls are a little bashful at first," she said. "A couple of the dads aren't used to interacting with the kids as much."

By the end of the day, though, the fathers are sold on the positive experience, and the children are giving out unsolicited hugs as they leave the school.

That's what the program seems to do so well -- bring men into a school setting, a pairing that benefits all involved.

(Continued on page 2)

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