Looking around the room filled with nearly 100 women, Craig Cooper realized he was one of only three men present at the Smithtown Elementary School’s Parent Teacher Association meeting. So he stood up and asked, “Where are all the dads?”
When Cooper’s oldest daughters went through the Baldwin public schools in the 1980s, at least a third of the parents present at the PTA meetings he attended were men, so he was surprised by the lack of fathers in the Smithtown Elementary School’s PTA when his youngest daughter, Mackenzie, started there in 2009.
With the blessings of the PTA president and then-principal Paul Graf, Cooper set out on a mission in 2010 to get more fathers actively involved in their children’s school. He created a Dad’s Committee within the PTA, sent home fliers, and soon he had rounded up a group of about 12 guys for his first meeting. Since then, Cooper’s email list of members has tripled and even more fathers have been turning up at PTA meetings and events.
“It’s not just about the guys who are actually members of the committee,” Cooper, 58, said. “It’s reaching out and engaging dads, bringing them into the building and creating activities they can wrap their hands around.”
The dads have hosted a bike rodeo, where kids learn about bicycle safety. They raised money to label the trees outside the school building by species. And they built donation bins shaped like doghouses in December for students to drop off pet supplies for animals living at local shelters.
In addition to Cooper, who works as a freelance video producer, the committee also includes police officers, engineers, attorneys, a nurse and a graphic designer.
“You have this amazing cross section of skills,” Cooper said. “We’re not just the ‘brawn.’ ”
The committee’s two most well-attended events are the annual end-of-the-year picnic, where the fathers cook up hot dogs and hamburgers at a local park on the last day of school for about 60 families, and “Mom’s Night Off.” This annual event only lasts about 90 minutes, but for $10 per family, dads and their kids enjoy a pizza party and an educational show while moms get some “me time.”
“The look on these kids’ faces as they walk into the building, holding their dad’s hand, in their school, no mom around, it just changes the dynamic,” Cooper said. “It’s that feeling that my dad is doing something at my school that makes it magical.”
Since taking over as principal of Smithtown Elementary School last year following Graf’s retirement, Janine Lavery has noticed that the Dads Committee and the larger PTA have a synergistic relationship.
“The Dads Committee helps us really offer a forum for dads who typically haven’t gotten involved in the traditional PTA meeting forum,” she said. “The dads are contributing in ways that help to make our whole parent-teacher-student experience better. It adds a whole other dimension.”
On a personal note, Cooper has noticed that his involvement in his daughter’s school has strengthened their relationship.
“I know that Mackenzie is excited and proud when I come into the building,” he said.
He’s also formed a better connection with his daughter’s teachers and administrators by being more active in the school community.
“Any parent who is involved at the school is respected or at least regarded in a different way,” he said. “People know that Mackenzie’s dad is around and it’s definitely made her very proud and very confident here in the building.”