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Cooper Champions encourage parents, dads included, to get involved at school

November 1, 2018

Joe Ader has a message for dads: Take a trip to your child’s school. Not a guilt trip, but a journey that might enrich everyone, especially your own child.

Ader has spread the message at his neighborhood school, Cooper Elementary School in northeast Spokane.

With support from first-year principal Katie Stone, he founded Cooper Champions, a group of volunteers who provide teachers with help in the classroom and something even more vital for kids.

For some of them, time is running out.

“A lot of these kids don’t have a father figure, so they need a role model,” said Ader, a father of two who moved to Spokane from Texas only two years ago, speaks nationally on poverty issues and manages a homeless shelter in Spokane, yet somehow finds the time to volunteer.

Ader cites statistics: that kids without a father figure are twice as likely to drop out and four times more likely to end up in poverty. They also end up in prison at twice the average rate.

Yet fathers remain a scarce commodity in public schools. Education is a female-dominated profession, especially at the elementary-school level.

When teachers reach out to parents, it’s usually the mother who’s contacted. Except for sports, volunteers are overwhelmingly female.

“Maybe teachers are more comfortable reaching out to moms, but there’s an assumption that moms have more inclination in those things,” said Ader, who understands the intimidation of dads showing up to school, buzzing the main door and feeling the silent question: “What are you here for?”

“That’s a physical barrier, which adds a psychological barrier,” Ader said. “It comes down to the school to ask for your support.”

Too often they don’t. Teachers are busy, with commitments that extend beyond the classroom. However, Ader said he’s rarely been contacted even though he’s on the volunteer list.

Ader and Stone got the ball rolling with Cooper Champions, which attempts to recruit role models, male and female.

They volunteer for a full day, half day or even an hour. While at Cooper they wear a vest to show their “Champion” status while helping in class, at recess and during lunches.

Barely a month old, the program has attracted just a handful of dads and 15 volunteers from the Gonzaga University men’s rowing team.

“We have some great volunteers, but we want to expand,” Stone said. “We also know how important it is to have a positive role model in our students’ lives, so having a Champion take the time to hang out with our students might make the difference for them.”

Stone knows that better than anyone. For kids whose parents volunteer, “Their attendance improves, their test scores improve and their social emotional learning improves.”

“We want them to know that we want them here,” Stone said.

So do other schools.

“We are always looking for more male volunteers,” said Brian Coddington, the community relations and communications director for Spokane Public Schools.

“We have similar programs, called WATCH Dogs, at Willard, Roosevelt, Holmes, Finch, Logan, Lincoln Heights and Lidgerwood. Positive male role models are always in demand,” Coddington said.

And it may surprise some parents that their kids won’t be embarrassed to see them in the classroom.

On most days, Ader’s 10-year-old son Grant “just wants me to drop him off at the front of the school,” Ader said. “But when I volunteer he wants to be right next to me in the class.”