The ball sailed over the schoolyard as several runs were scored, prompting smiles and cheers from the winning team. "Come on, Dad!" one of Brian DeAndrea's sons yelled as the father of three crossed the plate to seal a double-digit victory. "That was a tough one," a dad on the losing team said. "We had all the parents, too."
About 30 adults, mostly dads, and 60 kids showed up Saturday morning at Brooker Elementary School to participate in the Kickin' With Kids kickball tournament. It's one of several activities put on by the Brandon school's PTA Fathers Committee, which advocates fathers' involvement in children's school lives.
"Kids learn from so many different sources," said Darren Denington, who runs the committee. "And when there's a father taking an active role in their school life, they learn things from a different perspective."
Every month, the nine-person committee invites dads to eat breakfast or lunch with their kids at school. About 100 fathers showed up for the event last Friday, and even more have participated in past months.
"It's just really neat to see how many dads are at the school," principal Julie Lacy said. "We don't usually see that many dads, so it's just great to have them here."
The dads help set up for school functions. They tackle maintenance projects, from tightening loose screws on playground benches to planting shrubs for a new teacher parking lot.
And they work to increase student interest in reading. Last year, the group made a video of several men who hold recognizable jobs — a postal worker, a pilot, a member of the military — collectively reading a book to the kids.
After the video played, dads filled the classrooms and read to students. The school has more group-reading days scheduled. They seem to be effective, said Denington, whose 9-year-old daughter attends Brooker.
"One of the teachers approached me afterward and said, 'I can't believe how well this worked,' " he said.
The man who read to this particular class told the students he used to read books about humanitarian and baseball great Roberto Clemente when he was a kid. The teacher happened to have a book about Clemente on the classroom shelf.
"She told me about two weeks later that every single day, one of the boys in the class had taken that book home," Denington said. "Every boy wanted to read about Roberto Clemente."
Dozens of Hillsborough schools have similar initiatives, and others plan to start them. While most dads clubs are at elementary schools, they are beginning to appear at high schools and middle schools as educators emphasize the importance of male role models.
"The expectations are so high for kids … that it really has to be two parents supporting that child at home and making sure the kid is staying involved in school," said Heidi Koplin, a third grade teacher at Brooker. She played kickball Saturday with her 10-year-old daughter and husband, who is on the fathers committee.
Koplin said students who have both parents helping out with homework and other school activities are more eager to learn.
"We better take advantage of the time that our kids want us around because there's going to be the day where they're going to say, 'Drop me off at the corner' because you're going to be embarrassing to them," she said. "We all know that comes at some point."
That day seemed far off on Saturday as Madison Koplin, a fifth-grader at Brooker, played kickball with her parents.
She found it harder than recess. "When there are grownups, they can really punt it in the air, which is hard for us little children to catch," she said.
Madison enjoys eating lunch with her dad at school. When her mother asked her at what age would she be too old to eat lunch with him, she answered, "Until I die."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.