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Watch D.O.G.S. are looking out for St. Mary's students

Travis Thorson spent the day volunteering at St. Mary's School in Alexandria last week as part of the Watch D.O.G.S. program that encourages dads to become more involved in their child's education. Thorson, who has a 1st and 3rd grader at the school, is shown doing a science experiment with some 5th graders. Tara Bitzan | Echo Press1 / 2
Keith Wussow, the father of a St. Mary's 2nd grader, began his Watch D.O.G.S. shift last Wednesday by greeting students as they arrived at school. Tara Bitzan | Echo Press2 / 2

Numerous studies have shown that children do better academically when their fathers are involved in their school.

If that's true, many students at St. Mary's School in Alexandria will be getting straight A's this year.

This fall, St. Mary's School implemented the Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program.

The goal of the national initiative is to get dads more involved in their child's education. (See sidebar for background on the program.)

"Traditionally, we get a lot of moms in to volunteer, but we don't see a lot of dads," said Troy Sladek, principal at St. Mary's. "Some of the dads don't even know what room their child is in, or the name of their child's teacher.

"Parent involvement is something we expect and strongly rely on here," he added, "but dads often seem to feel out of place and don't really know what to do. This program gives them a clear sense of direction and purpose when volunteering at the school."

The program was suggested to Sladek in August by Brian Klimek of Alexandria, the father of a kindergarten and 3rd grade student at St. Mary's as well as two preschoolers,

He was reading a book that directed him to the website,, where he learned about the program.

Klimek said he had been active in his daughter's classroom when she was in kindergarten and 1st grade, but as she got older, there weren't as many opportunities.

"This just looked like a great way to stay involved," he said. "I think it helps that the day is scheduled for you and you aren't roaming the hallways wondering what to do. Having a schedule is easier for dads."

Sladek liked the idea and felt it would be a good fit for St. Mary's. Klimek agreed to serve as "lead dog" and to round up some other dads to sign up.

On September 20, all students and their dads or other significant adult males - grandfathers, uncles, step-fathers, etc. - were invited to a pizza party to learn more about Watch D.O.G.S.

The idea was a hit, with nearly 60 "father figures" signing up to volunteer.


By agreeing to be a Watch D.O.G., a dad is agreeing to spend one full day at the school, helping out wherever needed.

The dad - dressed in a WATCH D.O.G.S. T-shirt for easy identification by students and staff - arrives early for a briefing on his day by Sladek, and then tends to his first duty - greeting students at the front door as they arrive at school.

After hundreds of "good mornings" are shared, the dad spends some time in his child's classroom, or classrooms if he has more than one child at St. Mary's.

After that, he goes to wherever his printed schedule directs him.

He may spend time reading with a 3rd grade student, or working with a group of 6th graders in the science lab. He may do flashcards with a kindergarten student or play a game of kickball with kids on the playground.

"We have them do a wide variety of things," Sladek said. "The whole point of this program is that it allows the dads to get to know the staff and make connections with the kids, so we move them around to different classrooms to work with different age kids."

The dad ends his day by giving students "high fives" as they head out the door. He also gets his photo taken with his child(ren). The photo is placed on the Watch D.O.G.S. "Wall of Fame" located just inside the main entrance to the school.


Although the program has only been running for about three months at St. Mary's, Sladek said it is a "great success."

"It's been a lot of work to implement this and to take care of the scheduling, but it is definitely worth it," the principal stated. "The more people we can have in our building and the more parents connected to their child's education, the better."

He noted that many dads were in during the first three-month period, and that some weeks they had a dad in every day of the week.

"We've gotten a lot of positive comments from the dads that have taken part," Sladek said. "I expect most of them will come and do it again."

Klimek is also pleased with the program.

"I really didn't know what to expect, but I wasn't expecting this," he said of the overwhelming response. "It's really been great."

A few dads have already been in to volunteer more than one day at the school.

A "doughnuts with dads" event will be held in January to introduce more dads to the program and encourage them to sign-up.

But Sladek said the real winners of the program are the kids.

"You can sense their excitement, sense of pride and engagement when dad comes in to volunteer at school," he said. "It really is making a difference."


Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads Of Great Students) is an innovative father involvement, educational initiative of the National Center For Fathering. It began in 1998 in a school in Springdale, Arkansas and has since grown into a nationally recognized program that has brought hundreds of thousands of fathers and father figures into classrooms. Today, more than 2,276 schools in 41 states participate.

Program goals:

• To provide positive male role models for the students, demonstrating by their presence that education is important.

• To provide extra sets of eyes and ears to enhance school security and reduce bullying.

The program invites fathers, grandfathers, uncles, or other father figures to volunteer at least one day all day at their child's school. Volunteers perform a variety of tasks, including monitoring the school entrance, assisting with unloading/loading of buses and cars, monitoring the lunch room, or helping in the classroom with a teacher's guidance by working with students on homework, flashcards or spelling.

For more information visit the website

Follow #AlexMN @EchoPress Life Editor Tara Bitzan on Twitter at @TBitzan.

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Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

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