Cedar River Elementary has gone to the dogs.
The WatchDOGS, that is. They’re everywhere: Monitoring the school parking lot in bright green vests, enthusiastically waving cars through the drop off lines and handing out high-fives, in classrooms reading to students, or even at lunch telling jokes. They are dads (and other father figures) who volunteer at their children’s school, connecting with students and getting involved in their education.
The vest and dog tags are business as usual for WatchDOGS dad Steve Hayes, who has three kids at Cedar River and has volunteered with the program regularly for three years. WatchDOGS was introduced at his childrens’ previous school, Rock Creek Elementary, in 2015 to general excitement and enthusiasm. It was so well-received, in fact, that 500 dads, step-dads, uncles, grandpas and other father figures attended the kick-off event.
WatchDOGS (Dads of Great Students) is a program initially launched at an Arkansas elementary school in 1998 and has grown to nearly 6,500 schools nationwide. The program allows for both dads and father figures to volunteer during the school day; providing an impact through being both a positive male role model and an extra set of eyes and ears on campus.
“The WatchDOGS program is well represented within the Tahoma School District elementary schools,” says Eric Pisconski, the ‘Top Dog’, or head of the WatchDOGS program at Cedar River Elementary. “Cedar River currently has 132 dads registered; and 41 of those dads have already filled 91 volunteer slots.”
For Steve, there can be no higher honor.
“I volunteer every month. It’s so awesome to hang out with all the students and be involved in their learning,” he says. “It’s fun, and I like doing things to brighten their day. Giving high-fives is one of my favorite things, and the kids really like it.”
When Steve walks by a line of students and holds out his hand, almost all the kids who pass oblige; some enthusiastically, some with sheepish grins, and some who simply high-five automatically while talking to their friends.
Whether it’s helping students learn engineering, doing magic tricks in the lunchroom, or playing at recess, volunteering at the school is the highlight of Steve’s month.
“I love everything I get to do at school, but hanging out with the kids at recess is my favorite. We’ve had a few dance parties, we play wall ball, and the kids are always asking me to spin them on the playground equipment. I think recess is so important for kids. The exercise improves their mood and they go back into class feeling refreshed.”
But it’s not just dancing and high fives that connect WatchDOGS with students.
“The WatchDOGS program is an extremely valuable tool for getting more father figures directly involved in the daily lives or our kiddos,” Eric Pisconski says. “We tend to live hectic lives, rushing from one obligation to the next, but taking even one day to connect with our children in their environment is invaluable.”
The investment has paid off. According to WatchDOGS founder Jim Moore, the benefits of the program are astounding. Many school principals have reported that the mere presence of a WatchDOG dad dramatically reduces reports of bullying. Fathers get a glimpse of their child’s everyday world and learn about the increasingly complex challenges and decisions today’s youth are facing. As a result, they can learn to relate better to their child and hopefully connect with them. Fathers also gain a greater awareness of the positive impact they can have on their child’s life in three critical areas: academic performance, self esteem, social behavior.
For some parents in the community who may have trouble finding the time to volunteer, Eric says they work hard to balance work and family obligations to allow as many dads as possible to join the program. “We are set up to handle multiple dads per day. We will never turn away a dad saying, ‘No, sorry, we are full’.” This is an added benefit for busy parents, grandparents and other father figures who are worried about trying to fit it in their schedule, and can also give those who need it a break, because while being a WatchDOG is a lot of fun, spending the day as a hero at their children’s school can be tiring.
“I always tell the dads at the kickoff, ‘You have no idea how exhausted you will be at the end of the day’,” Eric says. “Most of them think I am joking, but you really have that ‘rock star’ vibe as a WatchDOG. You spend most of the day at all the different recesses – playing with the kids, giving out high fives, and engaging in lots of fun and funny conversations.
“Burn a sick day, take personal time, see if your employer will match volunteer hours, but volunteer and your kiddos will swell with pride getting to show you off for the day; and for some others, you might be the only positive male role model they get to see.”
If you would like to volunteer to be a WatchDOG, contact your school’s PTO to find out who the head of the WatchDOGS program is, or call the Tahoma School District at 425-413-3400 for more information.