A push to bring dads into kids' school lives
Raleigh takes up a global movement to involve fathers more, especially at school.
It's Monday morning, and Bryan Harris is walking his three daughters down a path he hasn't traveled before. This year, he's broken free of his long hours as a furniture deliveryman to be here on the first day of school, following his three daughters up the cement steps and grass-lined walkway to their classrooms at SPARC Academy, a K-8 charter school here. His two youngest, second-grader Shirley and third-grader Jessica, glance back at him with smiles. His fifth-grader, Ceosa, walks with her head held high.Skip to next paragraph
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"I wanted them to know I support what they're doing," he says.
Around the country, many African-American men are doing the same. They're part of a national movement called the Million Father March that encourages people of all races, but particularly black men, to be active in children's educational lives.
Created four years ago, the Million Father March is sponsored by The Black Star Project, a Chicago group working to build strong students, encourage parental involvement, and improve life in African-American and Latino communities. The goal is to eliminate the racial academic achievement gap, says Black Star Project founder and director Phillip Jackson. One key, he believes, is the commitment of dads.
This notion – fathers and father-figures taking children to school on their first day – is partly inspired by the Million Man March and partly by a South American practice of dads thanking principals and teachers on the last day of school, says Mr. Jackson.
Word about the event has spread through e-mails, churches, and community centers – a grass-roots effort with big results. The first year, just a couple of dozen cities participated. This year, he says, it's taking place in more than 200 places, from Jackson, Miss., to Berlin.
On Monday at Raleigh's SPARC Academy, local organizers Bettie Murchison and Bambi Richard Paku arrive early to greet families. They watch the nearly empty parking lot with hope in their eyes.
"They say you build it and they will come," says Ms. Murchison, president and CEO of the W.E.B. DuBois Community Development Corporation in Wake Forest. "You always hold your breath: Will they really be here? Will they really come?"
They do. Benny Butler is the first dad there, driving up with his wife, Veena, and their three sons. Murchison and Mr. Paku cheer as the Butlers step out, and they dole out Million Father March stickers.
"This shows the unity of the family," says Mr. Butler. "We need a strong showing of black men coming to school, not just on the first day, but every day."
Though he's an active dad, Butler understands the challenges facing some absent fathers: fear of being judged by their pasts, worry over whether they'll be welcome at the school. Events like these go a long way toward encouraging them, he says.
Lance Dupree arrives soon after. He sits with his wife and stepchildren in the cafeteria, waiting to walk to class together.
"My dad wasn't there for me," he says. "I'm there all the time. I give them what I wanted my dad to give to me – love, care and support. When you give kids those things, they usually turn out pretty well."
His son, 13-year-old Ramel, says his stepdad's support "lets me know he's here for me. That means a lot."
The March begins as a trickle, but becomes a stream of men and women bringing children to class. Some fathers hold hands with their sons and daughters. Uncles and granddads stand in for dads who can't make it – or who aren't around.
"It sets the tone for not just rest of the year, but for the rest of their lives," says Jhana Newkirk, whose brother Curt Conliffe-Berkeley escorted her son Anthony to class. He played the same fatherly role in her life when she was a girl, she says.