Monday, August 22, 2005

How do you, especially if you are a father, become involved in your child’s life “for real, for real”?

“You have to go beyond the first page, the feel-good page,” says Amin Muslim, a Northeast outreach worker with the Edgewood-Brookland Family Support Collaborative. “Otherwise, you haven’t moved toward full parenthood.”

This 50-year-old parent of three and an ex-offender, Mr. Muslim works specifically to help “baby daddies” become better full-fledged fathers.

Of the nationwide Million Father March events — a Chicago-based family initiative sponsored by the Black Star Project, which asks parents, particularly fathers, to accompany their children to the first day of school — Mr. Muslim said, “It’s a good starting point, but what is the next page?”

“I can appreciate the initiative, but what I found lacking is that once the auditorium is clean, there is no follow-up,” he said of what he called “a photo-op.”

“I’m trying to get guys involved with their children 24-7,” he said. What a mighty mission. As students begin returning to classes this week, area leaders and educators are urging fathers, as well as mothers, to get more involved in their children’s education as one major component to improve academic achievement.

“Parents, you are your child’s first and most important teacher,” Jacqueline F. Brown, Prince George’s County chief administrative officer, said during a press conference earlier this month to announce the county’s yearlong community and parental involvement campaign, “Embracing Our Village Partnership.”

Like Mr. Muslim, Howard A. Burnett, interim chief executive of Prince George’s schools, stressed that this countywide partnership with officials, businesses and community groups, as well as parents, must continue beyond the first-day initiative in the 199-school system.

Yesterday, Prince George’s County was noted for being the only school district in the country where public officials, as opposed to volunteers, took a leading role in the Black Star Project initiative. At least 80 county employees, some of them volunteers with the Moms Mentor Moms program, greeted parents and students, said Walter L. Dozier, education liaison to County Executive Jack B. Johnson, who was the head cheerleader of the official welcoming committee.

At William W. Hall Elementary School in Capitol Heights, Mr. Dozier shook hands with at least 40 fathers, some with two or three children in tow. Some men said they have made an annual practice of taking their children to school on the first day. Others said, “You don’t have to thank me. These are my children.”

“Men have stepped up to the plate,” Mr. Dozier said. “It was beyond our expectation. It was heartwarming to see.” The response indicates that “parents are ready to reach out and become part of our school system,” he added. Let’s hope he’s right.

“We can’t talk about underperforming schools until we talk about underperforming parents and underperforming communities,” Mr. Dozier pointed out. He also suggests that “we can’t let professional educators take the blame alone anymore,” when children fail miserably. “It can’t be the schools, it can’t be the community, it has to be everybody,” working together to fix the problem.

“Something is going on culturally that we can no longer accept,” Mr. Dozier said.

When fathers tell Mr. Muslim that they take their children to school the first day or they take their children to the park for the afternoon, he retorts, “You don’t get points for that. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

For him, this means going over your child’s schoolwork this week, next week and every week; asking about the teachers, the teacher’s personality, and classmates; attending as many PTA meetings as sporting activities.

Mr. Muslim chastises fathers who “will look for excuses not to be involved,” like lack of funds. “You don’t have to have money to go out on the playground and throw a ball to a boy or jump rope with a girl. Kids get a big kick out of that,” he said.

Further, “I tell [young fathers] that it’s only two reasons you don’t want to do something with your child, like put them on your lap and stay up to read a book to them. Either it’s not convenient, or it’s not as entertaining for you.”

An “unapologetic” Mr. Muslim warns: “It’s one thing when someone else makes you a nonfactor with your children, but it’s entirely different when you make yourself a nonfactor.”

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