As Title I social worker at Sudduth Elementary School, Ginger Mitchell sees a lot of mothers each day.
Mitchell said a great many mothers had joined Sudduth's Parent-Teacher Organization, and a number of mothers taught or had other jobs at Sudduth. It was rarer, she said, to see fathers — or even grown men in general — and she wanted to change that.
"I think there may be less than 10 (men) working in our school," Mitchell said. "Our kids respond to them. Our kids are excited to see them. They are just starved for male attention, for just having that father figure. There are a significant number of children in our school who do not have a father at home or a father figure in their lives."
Mitchell is coordinating Sudduth's new Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) program, which will kick off 6 p.m. Feb. 26 in Sudduth's cafeteria.
Watch DOGS began in 1998 in one Springdale, Ark. school, according to the program's website, and it has spread to 2,659 schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Mitchell said Watch DOGS invited male role models of all kinds — fathers, grandfathers, uncles and more — to volunteer at least one day at their local school during the school year to assist with such tasks as monitoring the school entrance and lunchroom, unloading buses and cars, and helping students with classwork and homework with teachers' guidance.
"(Watch DOGS volunteers can) be an extra set of hands and eyes for our kids," Mitchell said. "There are several schools in Mississippi that do the program, and we connected to it through one of our schools we talk to on a regular basis. We're just hoping that by providing this program, we can make our men more visible and increase (students') access to those positive male role models."
Mitchell said Watch DOGS programs were not limited to K-2. They could stretch all the way from kindergarten to 12th grade, she said, and she hoped to see that happen eventually in the SSD.
"Kids who have a positive male influence in their lives are likelier to graduate from high school and not drop out," Mitchell said. "We're just trying to implement that at a young age."
Mitchell said the program could also be an opportunity to reunite children with divorced, absent or otherwise disconnected fathers. She said Sudduth held a preliminary lunch program for men interested in Watch DOGS, where the promise of father-child reunions began to show.
"We had one dad who came and said he does not live in the home with his son, but this would be a great way for him to have a connection with his son outside the home in a positive way," Mitchell said. "(For) dads that are disconnected, this is a great way to show your child you really value them."
Mitchell said busy prospective Watch DOGS volunteers could sign up for as little as one or two days out of the school year. Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said he intended to attend the kickoff and volunteer as often as his schedule permitted.
"I think it's a great idea. It's a great way to get fathers and male role models involved with the kids in our schools," Wiseman said. "I think the concept is great because children need as many role models in their life as possible, and often adults struggle to find ways to be an active role model. This provides an avenue for men in our community to be role models for children."
Wiseman said he also volunteered with the SSD's Achievement Involving Mentoring (AIM) program. He became a father himself in July, and he said becoming a father had increased his appreciation for programs like Watch DOGS.
"Being a father changes my perspective, because I now can view a program like this through the lens of a father, and the most important job that I have is being a positive role model for my daughter," Wiseman said.
"In addition to that, I want her to have many role models in the community, and programs like this make that possible. I think every child needs positive male influences in their life. That can come from inside and outside of the home. Hopefully, this provides an opportunity for both."