Fathers from School No. 4 meet monthly in a casual setting to discuss various topics that affect them or their children’s education. Dads say they learn a lot from the other dads, and confidentiality allows everyone to speak freely.
By Gary Miller
It was just a casual conversation among a group of guys sitting in a circle. From the tone, they could have been in one of their basements or around a table at a diner. They could have been talking about politics or fantasy football.
But this group was meeting in the School No. 4 reading room. It was the monthly gathering of the school’s fathers program, and they were discussing a subject of great importance: their kids.
The program is a pet project of Principal Anthony Cataline, who started it seven years ago and sits in on every meeting along with the school social worker, Jennifer D’Alessio.
“I find it tremendously rewarding to see how interested the guys are to being here,” Cataline said. “And how committed some of them are.”
The purpose of the program is to get more fathers involved in the school and their child’s education, and to give them a network of other fathers they can lean on and learn from. Child care is provided during the meeting so dads can come with their kids.
The meetings are informal and wide-ranging discussions where the fathers are free to open up without risk.
“We have rules that we review before we start,” Cataline said. “There are no putdowns, you don’t interrupt, one person speaks at a time, and confidentiality is the key.”
The confidentiality is taken seriously so that fathers are able to share personal aspects of their lives or their children’s lives.
“We have a motto,” said group member Carlos Herrera. “What’s said in here stays here.”
Each meeting starts out with a topic, but the conversation can drift and grow into something new.
“It takes on a life of its own,” Cataline said. “I love it.”
Some of the topics covered include homework, bullying, technology, discipline, divorce and improving relationships.
“They get to learn a lot about the school that they don’t know,” Cataline said. “And as long as it’s not something that’s confidential, I have no problem sharing what some of our issues are here. And I think they’re appreciative of that. It develops a nice bond between the fathers and the school, the fathers with the classroom, the fathers with the kids.”
And the fathers with the other fathers.
“It’s just a great outlet for fathers to come together and build synergy, to provide insight and share what we know,” said Derrick Smith, a group member who has three children in School No. 4. “As fathers, we all have different perspectives on things. Synergy is one great force, combining with another force to create an even greater force. It’s iron sharpening iron.”
Many of the fathers in the group said they get so much out of learning from one another.
“I’m 25 and just starting out being a father,” said Cesar Cardenas, who has a son in pre-K. “So to get a lot of different opinions from different fathers is great. It helps out a lot. Because I’m learning just as much as my son is right now.”
Since last school year, the program has been funded through PRIDE grants from the Linden Education Association and New Jersey Education Association, which are used to build community support and involvement in schools. Prior to that, the program was funded through donations from community organizations and local businesses.
For many, the fathers program contributes to the overall positive atmosphere at School No. 4.
“I really like this school,” said Claudio Almeida, who has two children in the school. “The kids love it, too. They have no problems with the teachers, don’t have any problems with bullying or anything like that. I like the events that the school does for the kids, and the activities. And this for the parents is great.”
One father, Walter Longshore, continues to come to meetings even though his son has moved on to middle school.
“Even though my son isn’t here, I can get advice,” he said. “And I can give advice.”
As positive as the group is for the fathers and the school, Cataline is in a bit of a Catch 22 because if it gets too popular, it would lose its casual feel.
“I don’t think we could do this with more than 15,” the principal said. “You just can’t run a group with masses of people. We really try to find 12 committed fathers who are willing to come every month so that there is some continuity. Sometimes we get 16 and sometimes we get seven. So we’re flexible.”
In the springtime, though, the school opens up the fathers program to all the fathers in the school for a larger event in the gym.
“The gym teacher runs activities for fathers and kids together, and that’s a blast,” Cataline said. “The kids love to see their fathers getting involved, doing relays and things like that. The kids enjoy themselves, and the fathers enjoy themselves.”
And the last meeting of the year in June is always some kind of group meal or barbecue for the fathers and children together.
“We also do a craft, a project the fathers and kids can leave with, for our last session,” Cataline said.
The group atmosphere creates a bond among its members, a camaraderie that carries over outside the school walls.
“We all are friends,” said Jesus Ocambo, who has a son in second grade. “We see each other outside of school, because we all live in Linden. It’s like a church, that’s how we feel. It’s that kind of friendship.
“And every single meeting that we have makes us that much closer to each other.”