Crain’s Chicago Business
October 6, 2008
The new guy at school: Dad;
As more fathers volunteer, some changes in culture; Mars and Venus on the PTA



LENGTH: 1319 words

Charles Crotteau is a familiar face in a sea of lipstick during afternoon pickup at Sacred Heart Schools on the North Side.He’s a talkative, friendly doctor with a wife and two daughters who has just taken on the weighty task of volunteering as a fourth-grade room representative, whose duties include planning parties and shopping for gifts from the class to the teacher.“I don’t think it should be up to the mothers all the time to do everything,” he says.Though Dr. Crotteau isn’t the first dad to serve as room parent, he’s an anomaly in a world run by room mothers, as they once were known, and PTA moms. And that makes it difficult for a guy to fit in. “I know a lot of moms and talk to a lot of the moms. But there’s a certain group that doesn’t make eye contact or doesn’t seem interested in getting to know me. You talk for a moment and then the conversation quickly ends,” says Dr. Crotteau, 41, a general practitioner at Advocate Ravenswood Family Medicine.“Maybe it’s me being out of the norm, or maybe they’re wishing their spouse was more involved, but there’s a level of discomfort.”More dads are getting involved in their children’s educational lives: The National Parent Teacher Assn. says fathers’ participation has grown to 10% today from 3% five years ago. And schools are reaching out to encourage even more to step up. This week, Chicago Public Schools kicks off its “Real Men Read” program to bring dads into schools to read to kids.CPS Board President Rufus Williams says fathers’ participation at local school council and PTA meetings elevates the importance of education just as it does to have dads volunteering in the schools.“Their sheer presence calls attention to the importance of the issues on the table. It brings an important voice that wasn’t always there,” said Mr. Williams, who says he’s seen a steady increase in male participation throughout CPS schools in recent years.Still, there are challenges in integrating the dads, most of whom work, into a system that in many schools is still the province of stay-at-home moms. Professional men tend to lose patience with meandering meeting agendas, ignore small fundraising efforts in favor of bigger projects and focus their efforts on the familiar ground of sports programming. And dads like Dr. Crotteau who step out of that box find themselves out of their league when put in charge of decorating and treats.“We’ve already met and are talking about Halloween and Christmas,” he says. “Luckily, I’m working with other parents who know what they’re doing. I just listen a lot.”a business perspectiveThough dads tend to prefer local school council, or LSC, meetings, which deal with staffing and budgets, their presence has increased at PTA gatherings, too, as some schools adapt schedules to accommodate working parents.McKenzie Elementary School in Wilmette has moved some PTA meetings to evenings. There, executive dads with organizational charts in hand arrange everything from rehearsals to props months in advance for its annual fundraiser, a spring variety show performed by parents.“They really bring a different perspective to the meetings,” says Tip Walker, 44, a recent PTA president. “They’ll take a real-world experience from business and apply it to a school issue.”Ralph Shayne, 40, CFO of Warranty Finance LLC in Chicago, says he, like many fathers, feels at a disadvantage because he’s not familiar with the day-to-day life at Blaine Elementary School on the city’s North Side, where his twins attend. So he focuses on bigger fundraising projects.“Mothers seem to be more wired into the system because they have more of a social fabric there. It’s easier for them to understand the dynamics of the classroom. I’m not as active that way so I see my involvement more from a business perspective and how I can help improve (the school) in a bigger way,” he says.Blaine PTA president Sue Sell, 43, says that about 20% of this year’s PTA volunteers are dads. She says they prefer a solid assignment, like heading a book drive or sports activity, rather than chewing over long-term plans.“Maybe it’s a comfort level, but they usually want to contribute to something immediately instead of planning,” she says. “They want to make an impact right away.”John Rogers, 50, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based Ariel Investments LLC, sees more men taking an active role in the Ariel Elementary Community Academy, the public school on the South Side supported by Ariel. Much of the volunteerism focuses on sports.“There’s a comfort level for men of my generation: It’s a natural place for us to wade in,” says Mr. Rogers, who plays basketball with students at the school as well as at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which his daughter attended.Terry Mason, who heads the PTA at Ashburn Elementary School on the Southwest Side, says it took a PTA dad to prompt greater consideration of girls’ sports.“It’s a stereotype, but it was a dad in the PTA who made a point that we needed a girls’ basketball team,” she says. “We hadn’t addressed it before. We have lots of sports, but everything catered to boys. Now, we’re in the process of hiring a coach for the girls.”Working parents in general-not just dads-have changed the dynamic of school meetings by steering the conversation, staying on point and moving to the next agenda item quickly and efficiently.“Men bring a different tone; people are a little more businesslike overall,” says Leslie Schermerhorn, assistant principal at LaSalle Language Academy in Chicago, where fathers are involved in fundraising, construction planning, field trips, and cafeteria and playground duty.mars vs. venusMark Thomann, 42 and CEO of River West Brands in Chicago, says the changes to PTA and other school meetings may have less to do with him being a father and more to do with what he does for a living.“I’m always vocal. I always ask questions. And I always try to enhance a conversation. As a CEO with a finance and branding background, people are curious about what I think. But that’s more because of my skill set than because of my gender,” he says.Tony Wilkins, a senior vice-president and director of consultant relations at Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp., says he was frustrated when he first started attending school meetings at his children’s elementary and middle schools and now Whitney Young Magnet High School, but over those nine years he figured out how to keep the group on track.“I came to realize that people who seem to be talking longer and longer may just have a tougher time expressing something important. You have to ask them questions that narrow the focus of what they’re trying to say,” he says. “I learned the art of suggesting to the broader group to move on and come to closure.”Dan Cotter, 41, is the local school council chairman for Edgebrook Elementary and an in-house attorney for Chicago-based Argo Group. He says work experience definitely colors a parent’s approach to school business.“My sense is that men will give the new administration and faculty the benefit of the doubt more than (non-working) women will,” says Mr. Cotter, attributing that to experience in the workforce, where it’s understood that an employee must grow into a new position. “From women, you hear a lot of grumbling and questioning of every item and every decision (administrators) make.”Both men and women in parent-teacher organizations say involved dads are still unusual enough that their presence means that their words and the issues they care about command extra attention.“When it was only women, their work tended to be more invisible,” says David Strauss, 56, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and board member at the Lab Schools, where many mothers also work. “When men are involved, it wakes people up that this is work that someone has been doing all along.”Contact:

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LOAD-DATE: October 10, 2008


GRAPHIC: Art Credit: Charles Crotteau, with daughters Natalie, 6, and Molly, 9, at Sacred Heart Schools, where he is a room representative. * Mark Thomann drops off his daughter, Mia, at her prekindergarten class at Blaine Elementary, where he’s a PTA member. * Ralph Shayne drops off twins Ian and Paige, first-graders at Blaine. He helps the school with fundraising.



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Date/Time April 8 2009 10:44:27