Dads, students connect through Watch D.O.G.S.

John Petrakis works at Boeing. He’s on third shift — nights — in the Everett plant’s customer engineering department.

Andrew Morgan has been a cancer researcher. Now a stay-home parent with three children, he’s in the process of switching careers. He wants to be a science teacher.

Both will tell you they are fathers first. And both are familiar faces at Woodside Elementary School near Bothell.

The men are involved in Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students), a program that brings fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and other father figures into schools as full-day volunteers. Woodside and Cedar Wood Elementary, both in the Everett School District, are among a number of Snohomish County schools with Watch D.O.G.S. on campus.

Petrakis’ boy is finishing third grade at Woodside. Morgan’s daughter will be a second-grader there in the fall. Petrakis, 37, said being at school has been fulfilling and eye-opening. He devotes about two school days each month to the program.

“At first my motive was to be able to spend a day in my son’s school environment — to see how he is acting when he doesn’t think I’m there,” Petrakis said. “After I got involved with other kids, I saw the needs, especially for kids who have no father.”

As Woodside’s “Top Dog,” Morgan, 34, is the program’s volunteer coordinator. Along with encouraging other dads to join, he helps in classrooms, plays outside, and provides another set of adult eyes at school. “With students having those positive male figures on campus, behavioral problems start to ebb. Teachers can’t be everywhere all the time,” he said.

It’s fun for kids to have dads around. “You sit at a lunch table with your child, and every one of the other kids is saying ‘Tell me another joke.’

“My shtick, I’ll tell a wordplay joke — ‘What did the big bucket say to the little bucket? You’re a little pail.’ — I’m teaching vocabulary. You don’t have to be serious all the time. The kids love it,” Morgan said.

The program that has dads eating in Woodside’s cafeteria, helping kids with math flashcards, and going out for recess started in 1998 after a horrible incident far from here.

On March 24, 1998, two boys shot and killed five people at a middle school near Jonesboro, Arkansas. That night, Eric Snow and Jim Moore decided they wanted to be at their children’s school the next day. They talked with the principal of Gene George Elementary in Springdale, Arkansas, and encouraged other dads to come to school.

“It was not a security program. We really just wanted to be there, to offer reassurance. With a lot of help from the principal, we created Watch D.O.G.S.,” Snow said by phone Friday. “We didn’t set out to grow it to other schools.”

It has grown, beyond anything Snow could have imagined. Now run by the Kansas-based nonprofit National Center for Fathering, Watch D.O.G.S. programs are in 4,049 schools in 46 states and several countries.

Terry Coleman is a counselor at Cedar Wood Elementary. Watch D.O.G.S. started at that Bothell-area school in 2008. Coleman said volunteerism among dads has jumped from about 5 percent to some 35 percent of Cedar Wood’s 447 families. About 150 dads helped this year, he said.

Fathers boost academics by reading with kids and helping with math. “Being a presence, they do assist us with safety. They are also a tremendous value for kids who do not have a positive male figure in their lives,” Coleman said. When one Cedar Wood student lost his father, a Watch D.O.G.S. volunteer was put in that classroom, he said.

At Woodside, where this year’s goal was “100 days of dads,” counselor John Lerner said fathers also talk with kids about their jobs.

“John works at Boeing. Andy is in transition from being a biogeneticist to becoming a teacher. At Woodside, more than half of our kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. There might not be a male role model in a home. It’s nice to see these guys around with strong professional careers,” Lerner said.

“And when dads are on the playground, they’re like glue. Children are out there having a blast,” Lerner said. And Morgan agreed. “You want to feel like a total rock star? Go hang out at recess as a guy,” the Top Dog said.

A father’s day at school is a chance to see the world through a child’s eyes. Petrakis said his third-grader, Dinos, is proud to have him at school.

“During recess, we play soccer or football. We eat together around the lunch table. The kids come up with crazy, silly things they tell you,” Petrakis said. “That’s what they need — to talk to an adult.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Watch D.O.G.S., a program that brings dads into schools as volunteers, was founded in 1998 in Arkansas. It’s now a program of the Kansas-based National Center for Fathering. Information: www.fathers.com

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