A new volunteer program at Ames Elementary School in Riverside is encouraging fathers to become more involved in their children’s education, via the playground.

“Watch D.O.G.S.”, which stands for Dads of Great Students, is a national program whose general goal is to bring fathers into schools in order to provide students with more visible male role models. The program, which has been adopted at schools throughout the country at all different levels of education, hopes that such a presence will help reduce discipline problems and provide a better educational experience for both students and fathers.

The national program does not provide a specific format to follow on the local level. As a result, Ames Principal Colleen Lieggi decided to turn it into a lunch and recess monitoring program.

“The reason we started the program was, first of all, to get male role models in the building, and secondly to provide another set of eyes and ears on the playground,” Lieggi said.

Each day, one or two Watch Dads, as they are called, come in to help teachers and other volunteers handle any problems that might arise during the lunch hour.

With their bright blue T-shirts identifying them as Watch Dads, Lieggi said they are an easily recognizable presence on the playground. They don’t discipline the students, referring all major conflicts to Lieggi, but they can help to settle arguments and generally keep the peace.

“We just kind of hang out and make sure everything goes cruising along,” explained Watch Dad Tom Mantel, who’s been involved in the program all year.

Mantel is one of about 40 dads who volunteer for the program at least once a month. Lieggi said that ever since she introduced the program on the first day of school celebrations in September, there have been no problems getting at least one Watch Dad to come in every day of the school year.

“It’s great to see dads eager to volunteer in school,” she said.

In the few months that they’ve been there, the Watch Dads have already left their mark. They now run organized games during recess, such as dodgeball, basketball and kickball, which have all become huge hits with the students. Lieggi said that not only has it enhanced recess, giving students more options, but also that the Watch Dads have been able to provide valuable structure and expertise for the students.

“Fathers are usually very knowledgeable in terms of rules of the game,” she said, “which reduces disagreements between students.”

While the games are popular, Lieggi stressed that the main benefit of the Watch Dads is their ability to settle arguments among students quickly and calmly, to prevent them from escalating or distracting students during the day.

The Watch Dads can be especially helpful in this, she said, because sometimes fathers tend to bring a different sort of authority in terms of problem solving, one that is rare because most volunteers are women.

“The more support there is at recess to solve a problem, the more students don’t come in with the problem,” she said. “They’re able to get back to work.”

As much as the program has benefited the students, the dads have also been having their fun. Mantel, whose daughter is in the fifth grade, said he enjoyed being able to spend time with the kids.

“I think it’s a good idea, and I enjoyed doing it,” he said. “It’s a chance for dads that are available to get involved. You get to see the kids; the kids get to see someone other than their usual teacher or the moms that are there.”

Mantel added that he thought it was especially important that the Watch D.O.G.S. program focused on bringing fathers into the schools. Pointing out that women have a larger presence in most schools than men, he said this program would be beneficial for students.

“Most of the stuff that goes on is with moms, and most teachers are women,” he said. “This is change of pace.”

Lieggi said she is considering connecting Watch D.O.G.S. to the school’s volunteer tutoring program, Drop Everything and Read, in the future to bring dads further into the school. She acknowledged that sometimes fathers find it difficult to make time to volunteer at schools, but hoped programs such as these would make it easier for them to be involved.

“They can still get involved in their student’s education,” she said, “and help all the children at Ames at the same time.”