November 07, 2018ALMONT — Almont's Orchard Primary School has joined the ranks of schools across the U.S. implementing a program that encourage fathers and father-figures to spend time with their children while they are at school.
Founded in 1998, Watch DOGS (Dads Of Great Students) is designed to ensure that young children have access to positive male role models while in the school environment.
It has been proved that the presence of Watch DOGS in schools provides school staff an extra set of ears and eyes, thus enhancing security, reducing incidents of bullying and fighting and helping maintain an environment conducive to learning.
Orchard Primary Principal Jennifer Szlachta said the response to her appeal for Watch DOGS in the school's September newsletter was greater than anticipated.
"We must have had 200 kids and about 140 dads, stepdads, grandpas, uncles and other volunteers show up at our 'Dads and Kids' Pizza Night on October 3, " Szlachta said. "It was a huge turnout and shows the support our kids receive from parents and the community."
Szlachta said about 69 men have signed up to devote at least one full day a year at Orchard Primary to walk the halls, observe school entranceways, visit classrooms, read to, eat lunch with and generally be male role models to the school's 500-plus students in grades K-4.
Helping kick off Orchard Primary's Watch DOGS program on Monday, Oct. 15 was Aaron Machiniak, a father of two elementary students (Austin and Blake), and who SZlachta respectfully refers to as "The Big DOG."
A fulltime firefighter in Clinton Township, Machiniak represents the ideal image of a male role model—whether he's your dad or somebody else's.
His first assignment on Monday was to lead a reading/discussion group outside Mrs. Paulynn Bartlett's 4th-grade class that included his older son, Austin, 9, and several other boys.
Volunteer Jason Bernal demonstrates that his role as a Watch DOGS volunteer can also include spending time with the kids on the playground.
Whether his role was listening, reading or engaging the boys in critical thinking, it was evident Machiniak was connecting with his young charges.
Based on 20 years of success, the Watch DOGS experience has had significant rewards for those who volunteer.
Not only do they catch a glimpse of their students' lives at school, they are able to observe first-hand some of the challenges today's youth and their teachers face every day.
Volunteers also gain greater awareness of the positive impact a positive male influence can have on a student's life, particularly as it applies to a student's academic performance, self-esteem and social behavior.
"For me, this is a great way to get involved and to learn more about what's going on inside the boys' school," Machiniak said.
"One of the things that has jumped out to me is how teachers have to manage a classroom full of kids. It's amazing to me how a lot of teachers assign jobs to every kid in the room, and how every kid does their job. The teachers have to be very organized and the kids have to respond to the structure of the school day."
Machiniak said the students he has encountered tend to be very excited about the program, as has Orchard Primary's teaching staff
"I've heard nothing but positive things," he said. "The kids have been excited to see and meet the Watch DOGS and the teachers have welcomed us in their classrooms with open arms."
Students, too, have been providing their personal take on the role of the Watch DOGS, said Szlachta.
"I talked to some of our fourth graders and their comments were 'I liked that they played with us at recess,' 'It's awesome,' 'they are cool,' and 'It's a good idea to get our dads involved in school.'
"I heard one child talking to a Watch DOG, and saying, 'so you're here to protect us?' to which he responded 'yes,' to which the child replied 'that is good that you're helping to keep us safe.'"
Machiniak noted that Szlachta and the OPS office staff have been particularly supportive of the men's efforts.
"Mrs. Szlachta has taken on all of the work load associated with scheduling the Watch DOGS," he said. "And (office staff) Susie Stone and Tracy Miller also help with a lot of the 'behind the scenes' handling of the day-to-day operations."
Schools Supt. Dr. Bill Kalmar sees many advantages to increasing fathers' participation and involvement at the school.
He credited Szlachta for taking the initiative to bring the Watch DOGS program to Orchard Primary.
"She researched it, planned the implementation and is running the program," said Kalmar. "She really deserves the credit — as do our male volunteers.
"The greatest benefit I see in this program is the message it sends to our students," Kalmar said. "That our whole community is engaged and invested in their education.
"When students see their dads come into their school—they cannot miss the emphasis," he continued. "For the dads, it provides them opportunities to see how our schools operate and how dedicated our staff is to their children.
"Programs like Watch DOGS help strengthen the bridge between the schools and the community," Kalmar said. "We cannot succeed without that partnership."
Szlachta explained that Orchard Primary's program is open to male volunteers who have direct relationships with OPS students, including fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and uncles.
She added that all Watch DOGS are required to wear a WD t-shirt identifying them as volunteers while on school grounds.
They must also adhere to a list of requirements to ensure that student safety is of the greatest priority.
Specifically, all Watch DOGS must only use faculty/staff restrooms; never be alone with students; follow the school's confidentiality policies; not use profanity or any form of tobacco while on school grounds; do not share religious or political views; limit use of personal cell phones and similar devices; and to never engage in any conduct that might bring disrespect to himself, a student, the school or the Watch DOGS program.
For further information or to become a Watch DOGS male volunteer, call Orchard Primary School at 810-798-7019.
Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.