Court New Members: Dads
by Karen Gutierrez, The Cincinnati Enquirer, February 21,
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Carey Heuer gets
teased sometimes. After all, he's a man on the Parent Teacher
Organization (PTO). Instead of Sports Illustrated, he reads PTO
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"He tends to want to please or do better, because he knows we're
watching," Berk says.
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