The men standing in the entry hall of Amistad Academy have a wide-eyed look that people get when they don't know what's going to happen next. They are the first arrivals at a morning event for the men in the lives of middle-school students here. Only when a few dozen more men arrive do the smiles start to emerge.
Whether they got the announcement a week before or just as their child was heading out the door, they are here - fathers, grandfathers, and uncles taking time off work for participation in a national effort dubbed the Million Father March.
Organized by the Black Star Project in Chicago, a nonprofit focused on helping low-income black, Hispanic, and American Indian students, the effort is designed to encourage fathers to place themselves more front and center in their children's schooling. Schools in some 80 cities around the United States, as well as in Auckland, New Zealand, have participated this year - calling on men to walk children to school on the first day or to participate in events such as this one as the school year gets under way.
The initiative borrows its name from Louis Farrakhan's famous Million Man March, and in many neighborhoods it's particularly geared toward African-American men. But it's sometimes harder to get men into schools than it is to get them to march on Washington, says Phillip Jackson, Black Star's executive director. Some simply don't think it will make a difference, while others don't feel welcome.
"If a man goes in with the child's mother, all the conversation is directed at the mother," Mr. Jackson says. "Black men feel as though they're being marginalized, and so a large part of their response is to withdraw.... We're working overtime to try to break down those barriers - to let men know how important they are and then to get schools to welcome them."
In the United States, about one-third of all children, 24 million of them, live apart from their biological father, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative. But various studies have indicated that when fathers stay involved, students are less likely to repeat a grade, drop out, or develop problems such as substance abuse.
"Increasingly, schools, districts, and state leaders know they must reach out to fathers and to other family partners who are important in their children's lives," says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Ms. Epstein cites one school that recently hosted a breakfast for dads and other male figures. It was held on a Saturday, to avoid work conflicts. "Instead of it just being a fun activity ... it was really a celebration of children's writing," she says, stressing that "it's not just involvement for involvement's sake - it's involvement with a purpose."
One purpose this morning at Amistad is to enlist the dads and other men to help students demonstrate the values in the school motto: REACH - Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship, Hard Work.
"It's important for the kids today because with all the situations surrounding them, they need a little bit of daddy," says Eli Rosario, whose visit to Amistad today is his first. He rests a hand on his son Jacob's shoulder as the seventh-grader introduces him to a few friends and their fathers.
Nearby, fifth-grader Joey Wiley nibbles a doughnut and chats with his grandfather, Eric Wiley. The purpose of the day, Joey says, is to "show appreciation for how much they support you, how they hang out with you when you're sad. It's a chance to do something for them instead of them always doing something for us."
The main event is the "morning circle" - a ritual at this charter school that blends pep-rally zeal with serious messages about expectations inside and outside the classroom. Drummers in the center of the gym send loud pulses into the air as students, teachers, and fathers line up shoulder to shoulder around the rectangular border.
Each teacher has a chance to recognize students for achievement. Instead of applause, there's a menu of choreographed claps and sound effects for a teacher to choose from: If a teacher calls out "Roller Coaster," for instance, the students simulate it with their hands and an up-and-down pitch.
When it's the fathers', uncles', and grandfathers' turn to be recognized, a few students step forward to read inspirational quotes about fatherhood. Then the men step forward to bask in the crowd's creative substitutes for applause.
"I don't know about you, but I am inspired this morning," Amistad director Matthew Taylor shouts out. "When you see these fathers, it brings so much more power to the circle, and that power, of course, is love." He talks about the need for boys to have models for how to become men, and for girls to see good examples of the qualities they should be looking for in future partners.
"You've got us crying over here," a teacher calls out as she dabs away tears. Later, Mr. Taylor gets word that some students were crying, too, disappointed that their own fathers weren't there for the occasion.
The pride is palpable after the assembly, as the men stop off to meet homeroom teachers and then head back to the front room for some time with a handful of staff. "It's good to see everybody together," says one grandfather to the group; usually when he attends recitals and events, he sees only one or two fathers.
Malik Ramiz, an African-American computer tech teacher, talks about how the male voice signals a certain kind of authority to kids. "It shakes them up." He ends his comments with the message he hopes will resonate long after this day: "You're welcome here. We want to see you here." Follow-up events will include a Thursday "men's night out" at the school, with the gym open for activities with men and their children.
"I wish every school would do this," Mr. Rosario says. "It would help every single family walk forward together for our children.... Any time they do it, I will be here." Before he leaves, he pulls aside school director Taylor and gives him his phone number, explaining that he and Jacob's mother aren't together, but that he wants to know when anything is going on with Jacob at school, be it good news or bad.
Amistad's turnout was stronger than that of most other participating Connecticut schools because the others didn't do as much outreach, says Rory Edwards, who spread the word about the Million Father March as chairman of the state NAACP's education committee.
When he was a dean at Amistad, Mr. Edwards would suggest contacting the father if two or three meetings with a student's mother didn't yield results. "The mothers would sometimes say, 'He's not in our life.'... Well, the school can be a safe environment for those fathers to get involved."
Mr. Jackson hopes the Million Father March will grow year by year, and he sees it as a high-stakes endeavor. More black men are in prison than in college, he says, and the fork in the road comes at an early age. "This is probably the most critical march in the history of the African-American community, in terms of whether or not it is going to survive another 40 to 50 years. [It must] find a way to embrace the education of its children and rebuild its broken villages."
The Black Star Project recently began a yearlong effort to promote involvement of minority men in the education of their children. Here are some of the group's recommendations for the school year:
• Pick up your child's report card.
• Attend an assembly at your child's school.
• Attend your child's choral, drama, or awards presentation.
• Escort your child back to school.
• Visit a library, bookstore, or computer lab with your child.
• Read aloud to children in grades K-3 at your child's school.
• Attend a black history or cultural event with your child.
• Attend church or faith-based institution with your child.
• Go on a school field trip with your child's class.
• Take a trip to the zoo, museum, botanical conservatory, aquarium, or park with your child.
• Take a day or weekend trip or make dinner with your child.
• Play a sport or exercise with your child.
• Teach your child about health, fitness, and nutrition.
• Teach your child about entrepreneurship and business professionalism.
• Take your child to work.
• Meet your child at the school door on the last day of school.
• Thank your child's teacher, principal, janitor, security guard, lunchroom workers, and other staff for helping to educate your child.