Stars of the school

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For dads and other men who spend time helping at local schools, a day spent with students is an opportunity to feel like a rock star.

Joe Rieker, dad to two Wrightsville Beach School pupils, said students are talkative and inquisitive during his time volunteering at the school.

“They ask me questions: who I am, why I’m there, what my favorite football team is. They’ll tell me jokes about their friends at lunch. They want to show me their work.”

Marcello Caliva, another dad to Wrightsville Beach School students, also recalled a warm welcome by students every time he volunteered at the school.

“Anytime I walk into the school and see all the kids, see all my son’s and daughter’s friends, I feel like a star,” Caliva said.

The reaction is not limited to Rieker and Caliva, assistant principal Ed Dominowski said. Kids take notice and get excited when new adults come to school.

“When they come in, even if they’re only able to stay for lunch, they become rock stars with the kids,” he said.

Dominowski has worked with Rieker and the Wrightsville Beach School PTA since the beginning of the 2014-15 school year to coordinate a male presence at Wrightsville Beach School through a Watch D.O.G.S. program. Organized through the National Center for Fathering, the program has mobilized more than 2,000 local dads, grandfathers, uncles and other father figures who spend at least one day each year in 16 or 17 schools in southeastern North Carolina. Participation can be as fun as playing with kids at recess or as serious as helping students read and solve math problems. But after spending 21 years in elementary schools, Dominowski said having dads around, whether it’s in the cafeteria or in the classroom, helps reinforce positive student behavior, especially if the kids do not see male role models at home.

“Families are different these days. Sometimes there’s not a male role model in the home, and in elementary schools, you don’t see that many male teachers. I think it helps provide a different perspective for the kids, especially to get dads involved,” Dominowski said. “Traditionally, that role seems to be left with moms. When you get the dads in, it helps kids get that message that, yeah, dad thinks school is important, too.”

The Watch D.O.G.S. program is providing a structure for dads who are already pretty involved at Wrightsville Beach School, Caliva said. Reiker, who is helping to coordinate the program as top dog, is working with Dominowski to boost involvement for the upcoming school year.

“We’ve been active at the school, but really, we’re just getting up and running,” Rieker said.

Scott Biggs, who has worked to establish a Watch D.O.G.S. presence in southeastern North Carolina since 2011, said some of the most successful programs in the area are rooted in schools where male involvement in schools has been minimal.

“We’re trying to get dads to engage and reconnect in their kids’ lives,” Biggs said. “Often we, as dads, don’t know what we can do in the school to help. This is a program that’s good because it’s a really easy way to volunteer half a day or a day to participate in the kids’ lives.”

Biggs, who cited a childhood without an actively involved father as his motivation to be as involved as possible, said in some schools, the program has had to pull from nearby churches and community organizations to find men to participate, listing Williston Middle School as an example.

The presence of men in schools is more than an opportunity for men to get connected and feel good; it can help curb bullying and other acts of school violence, Biggs said.

“If we can get men actively involved, it cuts down on that because now there’s a male role model, a male presence, and just another set of eyes,” Biggs said.

Ben David, district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, serves as top dog at Forest Hills Elementary School, which welcomed the first Watch D.O.G.S. program in the area during the 2012-13 school year. Like Biggs, David listed reduced bullying and school violence as an immediate benefit of the program, but he said he also endorses the program for its long-term benefits.

“There’s a real deficit among some of the young people I’ve prosecuted, in terms of having a dad in their life. And so bringing in positive male role models to the schools has been a real benefit of this program. . . . We’re trying to reinforce good behavior, not just show up when there’s trouble,” David said.

email miriah@luminanews.com

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