A national program has found a home in Heart River Elementary School, where local dads are invited to participate in their children's lives, keeping the school safer, the students happier and getting a chance to be heroes, if only just for one day.
"I think our children really love it. They feel safer in their school ... like how if you go to sleep at night and you know mom and dad are in the other room, you feel safer," said Leyman Tedford, one of Heart River's 86 Watch Dads Of Great Students (D.O.G.S.) "It adds that extra level of ease ... just by your presence, the children can see 'somebody else is watching out for me.' "
Tedford came to Dickinson from Austin, Texas, where he was aware of the Watch D.O.G.S. program and its benefits. Of course, participants can volunteer much more than just one day of their time to the program, which is a national initiative that seeks to provide positive male role models for students and to enhance security in schools by providing additional eyes and ears.
It was serendipity that, not long after he arrived in Dickinson, Tedford spoke with Heart River Elementary Principal Susan Cook and found that they both thought Watch D.O.G.S. would be a great fit. Cook brought it to a school she previously worked at in East Texas, where the Watch D.O.G.S. program was used districtwide.
"It was so positive down there that I wanted to see if we could get our dads to do it up here and it was just karma that Mr. Tedford had experience with it and we'd talked about it a couple of times," Cook said. "He was right there, ready to implement it."
The program has many benefits, a primary one being that having dads around the school helps cut down on bullying.
"With dads' presence here, it's a proactive stance, because they know they won't get away with the teasing and the picking that kids sometimes do," Cook said. "The dads would not be here if they were not going to intervene."
Mathew Igard is in his third year of participating in the program, and he said he and his kids really enjoy taking part.
"It's an awesome program, my boys really look forward to it, they're excited the night before," Igard said. "I get to know the teachers, the principal, my children's friends. ... It's a little overwhelming at times, you go on the playground and you have 30 kids who want to push you on the swing ... (but) it's so rewarding."
There is an overwhelming sense of positivity as the dads do their patrols, walking down the school's hallways and greeting each student they meet warmly. The most common greeting is a high-five, followed by words of encouragement. The kids' faces light up when they see the dads, who are always wearing their distinctive T-shirts.
"If you want to get to the next level with your kid, come into their school," Tedford said. "I'm telling you, it enriches your life, you get to be hero for the day. That's what they call us heroes of the hallway."
At lunchtime, the dads and their kids have lunch together from the same line. Other dads might wander the cafeteria, interacting with the students and keeping an eye out. There's a tight organization to everything-the dads can volunteer their time weeks in advance, putting their names down on a large calendar.
"Whenever I came into the school, the very first time in Austin, I was definitely blown away by the structure of it," Tedford said. "The complexity of it, just how on-time everyone had to be, how on-task everyone had to be, much more order in the school systems now. Really, one of the things that blew me away the most was the appreciation (I got) for what the teachers have to do every day."
Tedford and Igard say they truly came to appreciate their local teachers, and not only that, the experience brought them closer to the whole community.
"We begin to know each other out in the community," Tedford said. "You know who they are, they know who you are, it builds a sense of community that wasn't there before."
Tedford said he's never seen any children express embarrassment over their fathers' participation in their school lives, and in fact he's seen relationships between children and parents change and improve as a result of the program.
"Having an investment in your child's education is worth more street cred to your child than I can tell you," he said. "Whenever you show up at the school, show an interest in them, show an interest in their friends, you kid is looking at you differently. They're perceiving you as somebody who really is involved in their education."
Cook said Heart River will continue the program in the future. She made a presentation about the benefits of Watch D.O.G.S. at a recent school board meeting, and said other area schools have shown interest, though Heart River remains the only school in Dickinson that participates.
"I think it's a wonderful program and it doesn't take a lot to run," Cook said. "Once you have the dads in place and they know what it's all about ... (they) know exactly what to do."
Any fathers of Heart River students who want to take part in the program are encouraged to attend an upcoming recruitment event, which will be at Heart River in early January.