Corbin H. Crable
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You can always tell when Grandpa Ernie is at school.
He’s a busy man, after all, making his way through the halls of Sunflower Elementary School, waving at students, stopping in classrooms to help with homework, and making sure he’s outside to play a little basketball during recess.

He’s usually greeted with the customary, “Hey, Grandpa Ernie!” by kids in the hallways. To those kids, he’s a male role model who always has time to spend with them. But to the school’s administrators, he’s Ernie Phillips, one of many members of the school’s Watch D.O.G.S program.

“The Watch D.O.G.S program encourages father figures to spend a day on our campus, and we have established a schedule for them to spend time with younger students, on the playground, at lunch, and doing small-group reading,” explained Dustin Mortensen, principal at Sunflower. “It’s designed for kids to have a positive male influence, and it has a tremendous impact on them.”

According to the National Center for Fathering, which sponsors the program, D.O.G.S in the program’s title stands for “Dads of Great Students.” The purpose of the program, according to the NCF’s website, is to “organize fathers and father figures in order to provide positive male role models for students and to enhance school security.”

Several other USD 231 schools, including Nike Elementary, host the program, now in its second year at Sunflower. Mortensen said more than 80 fathers and grandfathers participated in the program at his school during the program’s first year.

Participants can sign up to spend at least one day at Sunflower throughout the school year.

Those participating in the program this year will be able to sign up at a kickoff dinner at 6 p.m. Aug. 24 at Sunflower. Mortensen added that volunteers have already signed up for two thirds of the available school year dates for 2010-11.

Ernie Phillips said he’s one of those volunteers already signed up for this year and can’t wait to walk in the door and greet the kids once again.

“It’s just been really great helping the kids with math and reading on a one-on-one basis,” Phillips said. “I also join in with recess and PE – they enjoy trying to beat grandpa (at sports).

“If you stay with the younger kids, it’s not bad, but the older kids will run you ragged,” he laughed.

Mortensen said that when a father figure first volunteers with a specific school, they receive a shirt identifying them as being a Watch D.O.G. From there, the dads and granddads stay busy all day long.

“One of their first duties is to stand in front of the school and greet the kids,” Mortensen said. “The kid will introduce their father figure to the school over the P.A. system when they do the morning announcements, so they can introduce their dad to the entire school. It really softens up the school and makes it a true family atmosphere.”

Phillips said he knew even before the program began that he would be a mainstay at the school.

“My two grandkids asked me to get involved,” he recalled. “I go over at least once a month. Since I’m retired, I also go to a school in Olathe and am a Watch D.O.G. there, too. I enjoy it very much.”

Mortensen said one of the best parts about the Watch D.O.G.S program is that all kids benefit from the fathers and grandfathers who give their time and energy – not just the children and grandchildren of those men.

“It’s not necessarily designed to (provide a mentor for) specific students,” Mortensen said. “It’s so other students can see father figures on campus, and they end up establishing a relationship with the dads wearing those shirts. It’s not tailored toward one student – it’s tailored toward (the men) establishing a presence in these kids’ lives.”

For more information on the Watch D.O.G.S program, visit www.fathers.com, or call the USD 231 offices at 856-2000.