Many of the students, ages 5 to 12, at the 99th Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles, don’t know what it’s like to have a dad. So, in an effort to curb that, Donuts With Dads was created — a program in which dads, or male role models, from the community come to read books to the youngsters. Last month, 150 men participated in the school’s fifth annual event, and because of its success, dads will now be coming to the school to read every first Friday of every month — called Family Friday.
The elementary school is one of the Los Angeles Unified schools managed by the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, founded five years ago by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Since the program’s inception, which has grown through word of mouth, parent involvement rate at the school, which is 76 percent Latino, is now 85 percent — an increase of 65 percent.
“About five years ago…Mayor Villaraigosa took over the 10 worst performing schools in south central Los Angeles around the housing projects in Watts and Boyle Heights,” says 99th Street Elementary School Principal Courtney Sawyer. “The whole staff noticed the terrible parent involvement — only about 10 percent would show up for parent night.”
In an effort to increase parent involvement, she says they took a survey of the school and determined that approximately 80 percent of the students were without fathers or consistent male role models in the household.
“We started canvassing the communities to talk to police officers, firefighters — to get them to come to the school and make connections with kids and become involved in our school as mentors,” says Sawyer. “And over the past few years, we’ve seen a surge in math, but not language arts, so we married the two together — literacy and getting men in the classroom.”
She says the dads come in before work and spend the majority of an hour reading to the children, or having the children read to them.
“Some classrooms can have up to 10 men, and they’ll read with two to three kids,” says Sawyer.
Noel Ramirez is a 38-year-old machinist in the aerospace industry who participated in the program for the first time this year. His daughter, 11, and son, 10, are students at the school.
“If I could be a father [to kids who don’t have one] for 30 minutes, why not?” says Ramirez. “It’s very rewarding. That same day I came home from a hard day’s work, and my children said, ‘Thank you for coming.’”
Ramirez says he grew up in the same neighborhood, and he wishes they had a program like this when he was growing up.
“My father was there, but he was always working, and when it came to scholastics, he wasn’t there,” he says. “Maybe his presence would have made me strive a little harder. I might’ve been the President of the United States right now. If I could break that cycle and have my kids graduate from a prestigious university, hey…”
Jorge Saenz is a 34-year-old dad who also enjoys participating in the program, and has done so for the past four years.
“It’s so exciting to spend time with the kids, and they get so excited when they see dads walk in the room — even policemen,” says Saenz who likes to let the students pick out their own book and see the excitement on their faces. “They see people spending time with them. I think it will make them more secure in whatever they do in life.”