Saturday, February 21, 2004

PTOs court new members: dads

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Joe Berk helps Dylan Yelton (left) and his son, A.J., with their daily language review booklet in the second-grade class at Hinsdale Elementary School in Edgewood. Berk often visits his son's class to help students and to work on other school projects.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY

ALEXANDRIA - Carey Heuer gets teased sometimes. After all, he's a man on the Parent Teacher Organization. Instead of Sports Illustrated, he reads PTO Today.

Heuer's fellow board members are all women. When they talk about diets, he chimes in. When meetings close with "Thank you, ladies," he cheerfully quibbles. And when the PTO sponsors an event at Alexandria Elementary School, Heuer is always there, taking notes on what to do better next time.

"I felt my dad and mom didn't make me do my best job growing up," says Heuer, who has two daughters at Alexandria. "I want to make sure I don't miss that opportunity, to help my kids and the school."

To educators, Heuer represents a new and welcome sight at the schoolhouse: dads whose involvement extends beyond coaching sports or setting up booths at festivals.

Research shows that fathers can have a profound effect on their children's academic success by volunteering at schools. As a result, groups like the PTA - once synonymous with room mothers bearing cupcakes - are now reaching out to men.

This year, for the first time, the National PTA is running an ad in the annual NASCAR Guide, seen by 3 million racing fans. Featuring a smiling boy standing next to his father, the ad urges dads to join the PTA.

Around Greater Cincinnati, a handful already have.

Some are motivated by memories of their own, largely absent fathers. Others are compelled by curiosity: They have to know what their kids are doing seven hours a day.

Many simply want to matter.

"I have to be just as involved with my kids as my wife is," says Tom Wuerdeman, a self-employed plumber who never misses a PTO meeting at Merwin Elementary School in Pierce Township.

If not, "My kids aren't going to turn to me for anything anymore," Wuerdeman says. "I'd be just the guy who brings the check through the door."

PTOs and PTAs are essentially the same, except that Parent Teacher Associations have national and state-level organizations, while PTOs operate independently.

Men in the minority

No one tracks how many men are active members of PTOs or PTAs.

Anecdotally, however, it's clear that women predominate, especially at the elementary level. Work schedules are one reason. Historically, women have had more time to volunteer.

Then there's the PTA's reputation for "sidebar banter," as one mom puts it. For some women, female bonding is part of the experience.

"Most men can't endure this for any length of time," says Karen Chaffins, a vice president of the Parent-Teacher-Student-Association at Ryle High School in Union.

"They just don't see the need to discuss such issues as, 'Where did you get that nail polish?' in between spending $15,000 for after-prom and approving academic grants for teachers," Chaffins says.

Ryle's PTSA depends heavily on men to help set up its annual holiday craft sale and other projects. Chaffins deeply appreciates their hard work, but she'd rather not have men on the board. Their bottom-line orientation feels too stifling.

"I'm a woman," Chaffins says. "I'm very vocal; I'm very open. I could not go to the boardroom and sit."

Bringing new ideas

That's one view. But other PTO members say they're eager for more parent participation in general, and men bring a perspective that can be very good for schools.

Some ask questions that would never occur to women. Others dream big, complementing the skills of moms, who tend to be more detailed-oriented.

"I like to go in and say, 'Let's get something done! Let's do this or that!' " says Bruce Pendleton, a long-time PTA dad in Boone County. "With women, everything is documented. They have all their plans detailed out. They're very organized that way."

Sometimes, though, what's needed is a little flash. Tim Babb, a PTA dad in Kenton County, was sitting at a Reds game once when he was inspired by the airplane pulling an advertising banner overhead. Wouldn't it be cool, he thought, if that could happen at his son's school during Red Ribbon Week?

Babb starting making calls. Sure enough, that year a plane flew over Beechgrove Elementary School, trailing the words, "Beechgrove is drug-free and flying high."

It was a big hit.

Other dads draw on their outsider status to pitch new ways of reaching families.

Joe Berk, the only man on the PTA at R.C. Hinsdale Elementary in Edgewood, last year organized the school's first golf outing. It raised about $2,400 and attracted 64 golfers, many of them dads.

Berk also suggested an alternative to endless magazine drives and other fund-raisers. The PTA should determine its budget for the year and divide by the number of students, he said. Then, if families wanted to donate that amount, they would be exempt from fund-raisers for the year.

"It makes perfectly good sense," says Linda Berger, a PTA officer. "Me myself, I wrote the check." (The amount was $30 per child.)

Involvement pays off

Of course, being on the PTO or PTA isn't just about meetings and fund-raisers. Active parents get in the habit of being at school. They befriend teachers, influence policy and understand better the issues their children face during the day.

The dividends can be great, especially when it comes to dads.

In two-parent families, highly involved fathers are 42 percent more likely to have children who earn mostly "A's" than fathers who are uninvolved, says the National Center for Education Statistics. In its study, "highly involved" meant doing at least three of the following: volunteering at school, attending a general meeting, attending a school event or participating in a parent-teacher conference.

Highly involved moms, by contrast, are only 20 percent more likely than uninvolved moms to have children who get mostly A's. Researchers are still trying to explain why involved dads make such a difference.

Around Greater Cincinnati, PTA dads say they've gained a whole new appreciation for teachers' challenges, not to mention the strengths and weaknesses of their own children.

Berk, who owns a commercial printing company, started visiting Hinsdale three years ago, when his son was in kindergarten.

"To me it's the unknown - what's going on?" Berk says. "He's with these people from 7 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. That's a huge amount of time."

Being self-employed, Berk rearranged his work schedule to accommodate school volunteering - something his own parents never did.

Soon enough, he found himself running off copies for busy teachers, organizing Hinsdale's annual yearbook and helping judge the science fair.

"I still go in and putz around the classroom, fix a computer here, see what (the teacher) needs there," Berk says.

And of course, he always makes a point to stop by his son's table.

"He tends to want to please or do better, because he knows we're watching," Berk says.


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