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D.O.G.S. on duty
Role model program gets fathers in school
Watchdog Dads 5 es
John Stepp talks with Coronado, left, as McAndrew Okwei takes a drink. - photo by Emily Saunders
John Stepp walked through the hall of Midway Elementary School like he’s been coming there for years.

He knows several of the teachers and even more of the students.

First-graders going to lunch walked single file out of the classroom, exchanging high fives with Stepp down the line.

The lettering on his shirt is all the kids need to see to hold up their palms.

He’s a member of the Watch D.O.G.S. — Dads of Great Students — a national program created to get more male involvement in schools.

“I’m honored that I’m trusted to come in, that there’s an organization I can be affiliated with that allows me to come in first and foremost to help the children,” Stepp said. “I feel like I can be a good role model for kids.”

The national Watch D.O.G.S. program was founded in 1998 in Arkansas by Jim Moore in response to a tragic school shooting.

Moore hoped that having more fathers at school would be a positive influence on safety and good behavior.

The program has since spread to more than 1,150 schools across the nation.

Midway Elementary is one of 13 schools in Georgia and the only in Forsyth with the special fatherly presence.

Melissa Grohovac saw a segment on ABC News about the program, which prompted her to organize a group at her children’s school.

Stepp is a member of the Top Dog team, a group of the seven dads who helped Grohovac get started in September.

They held a customary pizza party to drum up involvement and 60 men signed up to spend a day in the school.

The seven fathers pioneered the involvement, which has already grown from one once a week to more than two dads twice a week.

“Teachers quickly learned that we’re here to help them,” Top Dog Ken Allison said.

“There’s probably more requests [from teachers] than there are Watch D.O.G.S.,” said Chuck Doyle, another Top Dog.

It seems the children love the dads too. Each day one comes in, he’s introduced on the morning news so the students will know who to give high fives to.

Watch D.O.G.S. do help with studies and classroom activities, but it’s equally important for them to spend time with the students at lunch and recess.

“You’re just a big kid ... and they gravitate to you out there,” Stepp said.

Each volunteers in three classrooms, usually including that of their own child.

Sean Tolliver spent his first day as a Watch D.O.G. Friday, where he read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to his daughter’s first-grade class.

Rachel Tolliver wore a T-shirt that read “My dad is a hero.”

When he finished the story, though, it was another girl in the class who stepped up to give him a hug.

“It’s just about being involved in my daughter’s school, showing support for the teacher ... and being an active parent,” he said.

Rob Santi also served his first day Friday.

Approaching the kindergarten class of Janet McDaniel, he tried to step in quietly to not disturb storytime.

“Watch dog!” the kids shouted as he entered.

McDaniel often requests the fathers for her classroom.

“My group just loves them,” she said. “They want to read to them and show them what they’re writing.”

Santi traveled around the room asking students what they were drawing or writing about.

“This is you,” Benjamin Ewool said, showing Santi a drawing of him.

“Am I always smiling that much?” Santi asked, getting a nod from Ewool, who added a mohawk to the top of Santi’s head in his journal.

Santi enjoyed his visit to his stepdaughter’s school, where the children matched his enthusiasm.

He said in one class, before he was even introduced, all the students raised their hands for a chance to get one-on-one study time with him.

“Of course that makes us feel good,” he said.

McDaniel said both her father and husand “never thought about doing anything in the classroom.”

With changing roles in society though, she said it’s good for the students to see more male involvement in the classroom.

Grohovac said the program aims to give fathers a clear role and opportunity to volunteer at school.

“Most of the involvement has been with moms,” she said. “Usually dads don’t get involved unless something’s wrong.

“The Watch D.O.G.S. program changes that.”

Principal Todd Smith has seen a difference in the school.

“I have a lot of kids asking me now if their dads can come and be a part of it,” he said. “It really gives them somebody to look up to.”

All the children want to have their photo displayed in the front hallway with their fathers on the wall of fame, said Carlo Grohovac, husband of the program organizer and also a Top Dog.

“We’re rockstars with these kids,” he said.

Most of the fathers work full time, but make a sacrifice to come in.

“For me, it’s worth taking a day of vacation to come here with the kids,” Allison said.

Added Doyle: “It’s a chance to do something stress-free.”

Melissa Grohovac said sometimes she has a hard time getting the dads to leave at 1 p.m., when their time is over.

“It’ll be like 1:30 and they’re still out there,” she said. “I’m like ‘What are you doing? Go home.’ They’re like ‘No, we’re having too much fun at school. We don’t want to go back to work.’”