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.
"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.
Principal Bobbie Little and teachers smile as they watch the families go by. SPARC behavior specialist Ishiyah Yisrael says this event is as important for the school as it is for the dads and kids. While fathers will realize they're welcome here, the school community will learn that more fathers want to be involved – and will work to strengthen that connection. It's a relationship that he believes will grow.
"We have a deficit in our community," says Mr. Yisrael, a father of five. "We can't just put all of the fathers back in the home, but we can help to get them in the schools. We believe it will turn everything around."
The average reading and math scores of black students have risen since the 1970s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics' (NCES) 2004 Long-Term Trend Assessment. The academic achievement gap, the report states, is narrowing: Among 9-year-old students, the divide between reading scores of white and black students decreased from 44 points in 1971 to 26 points in 2004. Similar progress has been made in math.
But even with those gains, the average scores of black students still lag behind those of whites. That needs to change, Jackson says. "The Million Father March is a push for the real and positive education for black children," he says. "We're not [accepting] pretense anymore."
In 2005, the dropout rate for black male students was 12 percent, nearly twice that of white males, according to the 2006 Digest of Educational Statistics. The rate for black females was 9 percent, compared to 5.3 percent for white females.
Father participation matters, according to a 1997 NCES report titled Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools. Children from two-parent families and single-father homes who had fathers highly involved in school were more likely to get As and enjoy school, the study found. Children with involved nonresident fathers also fared better than peers with less involved dads. They were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities, and those in grades 6-12 were less likely to be suspended, expelled, or repeat a grade.
"It's clear that when both parents are involved, kids do better," says Channell Wilkins, Director of the Office of Head Start. "There's more support, better language skills, more help to develop that child's understanding of the environment around them." At Head Start, dads who become involved in one program often join others. "It opens the door and lets them know how valuable they are to a child's life," Mr. Wilkins says.
At SPARC, dads and moms linger, giving kisses and greeting teachers. Mr. Harris walks his girls to their lockers. He tells them to be good.
But whatever the benefits of these August mornings, no single day – no single event – is a panacea for parental absence or children's academic challenges. The Million Father March goes far beyond this morning's walk to class, says Jackson. In past years, some dads and father-figures here have become mentors and tutors. They've attended sessions on parental involvement. Dads who were already involved guided those who needed encouragement. Murchison plans to have similar follow-up events in Raleigh and Wake Forest.
"Education is something that has to be driven up from the community, from the family, and into the school," Jackson says.
Days like this are a start.
After meeting the teacher of his two youngest, Harris walks Ceosa to class. Her teacher, Steve Gough, asks him inside and invites him to call anytime.
And Harris is beaming as he walks back down that path.