It was the first day of school, time for Joseph Robinson to engage in his yearly ritual: He walked his four sons into their elementary school and met their teachers.
“I never had a father to do this for me, and it feels good. It’s my duty,” Mr. Robinson said last week outside the front doors of William W. Hall Elementary School, a brand-new K-6 school here. “It lets the teachers know that not just the mom is involved, but both of us are. And it makes my sons straighten up and stand proud when I come with them.”
In bringing his children to school on Aug. 22, Mr. Robinson joined hundreds of parents in this Washington suburb and thousands of others nationwide who are taking part in what is billed as the Million Father March when schools open in their cities. The second annual event, organized by the Black Star Project, a nonprofit organization in Chicago, is a bid to get parents involved in their children’s education. As of last week, 79 cities in the United States and New Zealand were slated to participate.
The effort is envisioned as a call to action in particular for African-American men, whose children grow up in single-parent families more often than children of other races. It’s also intended as a start in building community networks in which adults in schools, businesses, civic groups, and religious institutions work together to strengthen children’s educational growth at home and at school.
“All indicators show that when men are involved in the educational, social, and developmental lives of their children, children learn more, they learn faster, they have fewer problems in school and fewer problems in life,” said Phillip Jackson, the executive director of the Black Star Project.
“We’re trying to get men to realize that educating children is a part of their job. It’s part of being a man and a father. And we’re trying to get schools to realize that they will never have the kind of success educating children, especially black children, without black men being involved.”
The event is taking different forms in different places. In Kansas City, Mo., a radio station has offered to drive fathers and their children to school in limousines. In one Illinois town, the mayor planned to greet men as they brought their children to school. One Hawaii town organized an effort to get men in prison to write to friends and relatives and ask them to take their children to school in their stead.
Here in Prince George’s County, Md., a predominantly African-American, largely middle-class community east of Washington, civic leaders asked parents to bring their children to school on the first day. They dubbed the event “Embracing Our Village,” in an attempt to revitalize the sense of communal responsibility for children in the oft-cited African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
The effort was part of the county’s “Livable Communities” initiative, which seeks to strengthen education, public safety, health care, and other key services. Through the county’s effort, leaders of the local chambers of commerce, NAACP, school board, PTA, and clergy were on hand at Hall Elementary to greet parents and students as they arrived. The organizations have pledged to mobilize their constituencies to serve as tutors in school, oversee internships in business, and act as role models for Prince George’s schoolchildren.
The county also will offer public forums throughout the year on such topics as how parents can work closely with schools to bolster their children’s education, said County Executive Jack B. Johnson, whose office will coordinate the forums.
“It’s important to bring everyone out on the first day of school,” he said, “but my job as county executive is to sustain those efforts throughout the year.”
‘So Much Is Lost’
Walker Mill Baptist Church here in Capitol Heights illustrates some of what county leaders have in mind. The church has “adopted” five local schools, recruiting members of its congregation to provide a range of experiences for children, from mentoring to tree-planting or Friday nights at the movies. Other churches in the area are working to start similar programs, said Denise Johnson, the pastor of Higher Calling Christian Ministries in Hyattsville, Md.
Bea Tignor, the chairwoman of the school board for the 139,000-student Prince George’s County district, acknowledged that it is a struggle for working parents, even those of relative affluence, to maintain a consistent presence in schools. But “we need to keep them involved, from pre-K through 12th grade,” she said, because students achieve more when their parents take part in their schooling.
Some schools have recruited local Girl Scouts to provide babysitting at PTA meetings, Ms. Tignor said. Others have organized carpools to get parents to school events.
Glenda Washington, Hall Elementary’s principal, was gratified to see so many fathers among the parents bringing children to school. “It takes at least two [parents], and so much more than that,” she said between greetings and hugs for arriving students. “When a piece is missing, so much is lost. Too often, that image of maleness is gone.”
Gregory Hodge, a school board member in Oakland, Calif., said efforts to involve African-American men in their children’s education are “absolutely critical” at a time when young black men are at greater risk of dropping out of school or landing in prison than are their nonblack peers, and when black families are too often seen as being insufficiently dedicated to their children’s schooling.
“Symbolically, it’s important because it sends a message to the country that African-American men care about their children as much or more than anybody else, that we are part of the social fabric and we take our job and our role in that seriously,” Mr. Hodge said. “With so much coming at the black community, we need to step up and be leaders and parents.”