Somebody let the dogs into Progress Elementary School. They’re big, but they’re friendly and the kids love them. And no slobber is involved.
Since the beginning of the year the school has been participating in the Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program that gets fathers involved in volunteering at local schools. Since then a school that hardly ever saw a father walk through the front door now has 65 fathers volunteering on a regular basis.
Todd Ballensky – who has a daughter in fifth grade and a son in third grade – came up with the idea to bring the national program to the school. He estimates that 90 percent of fathers never set foot in their child’s school – not for conferences, not for carnivals, not for anything. “It’s hard to get males involved,” he said.
Ballensky confesses that he used to be one of those hands-off dads. He coached his older children in sports and that was how they bonded. There was no “aha” moment, but Ballensky eventually decided it was time to enter those doors for his younger children.
Now he has dozens of fathers signed up. Some come for several hours a day, some just drop in at lunch and recess. They’ll do everything from helping students with class work to playing a mean game of tetherball. “They’ll basically do what the teachers want,” he said. “I just try to get the guys in whenever they can. I’d like to see at least one guy in here every day of the week.”
Ballensky, who was at the school every day at the beginning of the year trying to get the program off the ground, works as an energy consumption specialist for Avista. “My employer is really huge on community service,” he said. “I’ve probably logged over 800 hours this year.”
The fathers strolling the halls in their official Watch D.O.G.S. T-shirts and sweatshirts tend to be well-liked by the 350 students. “The kids love it,” he said. “The teachers were saying that we’re kind of like rock stars. There are just so many kids that are so starving for attention. Just these guys going out and shooting baskets is huge.”
The fathers have done more than just help out in the classroom and on the playground. They’ve organized a food drive and donated Christmas presents to the families of 17 students. The only requirement to participate is passing a background check every year like every other school volunteer.
Adrian Strumbough has been volunteering since the beginning of the year at the request of a fourth-grader for whom he serves as a father figure. “I like it,” he said. “I just wish I had more time to participate.”
He said he’s partial to volunteering on the playground during recess. “That was my favorite subject in school when I was growing up,” he said.
Will Matthews has also been involved in the group since it started at the suggestion of his fifth-grade daughter and third-grade son. “I enjoy it a lot,” he said. “I can come see them in their own environment. They’re proud to see me come in.”
His daughter Alysha Newton said she’s glad her dad is part of the program. “Everybody gets to see my dad,” she said.
She also likes the fact that she can beat him at tetherball. “Usually he beats me at everything.”
Principal Matt Chisholm said he had no problems authorizing the Watch D.O.G.S. program, but never thought it would take off the way it has. “I never, ever thought it would get like this,” he said.
The fathers provide an extra set of adult hands in the classroom and give more individualized attention in small groups. Some teachers who were initially hesitant about the program have come to recognize the benefits, he said. “At first it was a little rough because it was new. As the dads got to coming in, it was a smooth fit. They appreciate having them in.”
He has seen students get more involved in school and on the playground since the dads started coming around. “A lot of them don’t have a male in their life when they get home,” he said. “Kids flock to them on the playground.”
Chisholm was so enthused about the program that he nominated Ballensky for the Central Valley School District’s Meritorious Service Award, which he won. “Todd took the initiative to seeking this out himself,” he said. “No one spurred him on. He needs to be recognized for that.
“Todd is truly about kids. He’s just a kid himself. Kids sense that when they’re interacting with him.”
Ballensky was also awarded a Golden Acorn award for his community service, but he doesn’t seem to care about racking up more awards. He’s more interested in giving the student walking down the hall a high-five.