Father figures on patrol at Woodland Park school

September 16, 2013 Updated: September 16, 2013 at 1:15 pm
photo - Martin Lays is a grandfather who volunteers at Gateway Elementary School in Woodland Park with the group "Watchdog Dads." Photo courtesy of Woodland Park School District
Martin Lays is a grandfather who volunteers at Gateway Elementary School in Woodland Park with the group "Watchdog Dads." Photo courtesy of Woodland Park School District 

Matt Dagostino used to be a cop. But his new job seems even harder. "I was exhausted at the end of the day," he said.

Dagostino is one of 37 Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) at Gateway Elementary School in Woodland Park.

On his first day at work last week, he gave hundreds of students high-fives as they entered the building in the morning, played football with 30 kids at recess, checked the doors to make sure they were locked, helped tie shoes and solve math problems, set a wayward child straight and distributed lots of hugs, including to his third-grade son, Joseph.

"We need to get more men involved in school so kids see that there can be strong male role models. I think that can be a positive influence, and you really see a direct impact on what you're doing," he said Friday. "But you will be tired."

Principal Kay Lynn Waddell had heard about the nationwide Watch D.O.G.S. program, from the National Center For Fathering, and asked one of her star parent supporters, Doug Zurek, dad of first-grader Palisade, to check it out.

Watch D.O.G.S. are male volunteers who have several purposes: assist teachers in the classroom, supply extra eyes on the lookout for suspicious activity and be good role models for all students.

Zurek said he got 20 RSVPs to an initial pizza party a few weeks ago to introduce the concept to the men of Gateway. To his surprise, 40 showed up.

So far, 37 father figures - dads, granddads, stepdads, uncles and husbands of teachers - have passed background checks, taken orientation and earned the Watch D.O.G.S. seal of approval.

"It's been wildly successful," Waddell said. "This is only the third full week of school, and already the children are looking for the Watch D.O.G.S. and are really excited to have them here."

The program also has been proved to produce results, Zurek said, reducing bullying, preventing school violence and contributing to better academic performance. "We're a visible presence and a good deterrent. There's a definite safety element," he said.

Cy Gillespie, an El Paso County sheriff's deputy who has a first- and third-grader at Gateway, said that in light of school shootings in recent years, the additional security the dads provide is helpful.

"The interaction with the students is important, too," he said. "They don't get a lot of male role models."

Watch D.O.G.S. sign up to volunteer for a whole day and interact with all 367 students at Gateway. "The students do hand sanitizer with the Watch D.O.G. before lunch, so there is contact with every child," Waddell said.

Volunteering is an easy way for men to be involved with their children's education.

Chuck Ross said his being there is helping his fourth-grade daughter, Grace, adjust to the school, because the family is new to the area.

"It can feel intimidating at a new school, so that was a big motivator for me," he said. "I like the idea of us helping create an environment that's conducive to learning and enjoying school."

Martin Lays, the grandfather of three Gateway students, said he joined so he could be more involved in his grandchildren's daily lives.

"I'm involved in their evenings a lot, but I wanted to get a feel for their school life," he said.

His 7-year-old granddaughter, Evelyn La Vallee, said it's fun having grandpa around.

"He gets to come and play with me," she said.

Frank Beaman said his fourth-grade grandson, Chase Martin, doesn't have a dad at home, so he thought it would be good to volunteer at the school for not only his grandson's sake but those of other children who don't have dads living with them.

"It's cool to have him here," Chase said. "Usually there aren't a lot of parents that come to our school."

Donations from Gateway's parent-teacher association, the local Park State Bank and Trust and Peak Internet paid for an instruction kit from the national organization, T-shirts, lunches, banners and other materials.

As Dagostino noted, "One kid said, 'Mr. Dagostino, you're the greatest,' and that's the best feeling."

Falcon School District 49 also has the Watch D.O.G.S. program in several elementary schools and a middle school.

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