1. Education

Volunteer dads making a difference in schools

PORT RICHEY — Monte Werner beamed as he watched a steady stream of dads and their kids make their way into the cafeteria at Moon Lake Elementary School. Pizza nights can be a big draw, but this far surpassed the expectations of Werner and fellow behavioral specialist Fred Monfett, who was busy plating up slices ahead of a presentation on the new WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program at the school.

Earlier in the school year, about 40 or so expressed interest in signing on to the program. That number more than doubled when the school sent out an invitation to sign up at the pizza night kickoff.

"We've been a little nervous about this — wondering if this was really going to happen," said Werner, who is coordinating the program with Monfett. "Now it looks like it's really going to take off."

WATCH D.O.G.S. is new to Pasco County, but the volunteer program, founded by Jim Moore, a concerned father after the 1998 middle-school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., has been around for a while. More than 3,156 active programs in 46 states participate in WATCH D.O.G.S.

Moon Lake, Mittye P. Locke, Gulf Highlands, Gulfside, Woodland and Fox Hollow Elementary schools are now launching the program with an initial $350 start-up cost being funded by the school district.

"It's a cost-effective program, and research shows that the more parent involvement you have, the better the kids do," said Deanna DeCubellis, who serves as director of Parent and Community Engagement for the district.

Fox Hollow Elementary principal Dawn Scilex is already seeing a difference at her school, where the program is up and running. Early on it felt like a good fit to Scilex, whose focus was promoting community involvement when she came on as principal in July. Even so, she was overwhelmed with the buy-in.

"It's incredible how this program is changing our community on so many levels. Every day of the entire school year is already covered by at least one dad, sometimes two and three," she said, pointing to a wall-size daily calendar filled with the names of 125 WATCH D.O.G.S. "They are in the classrooms. They are at the car loop. They are in the cafeteria. And they are leaving with a good idea of what goes on here each day."

Coordinating the program at Fox Hollow is stay-at-home dad Joe Sylvester, 47. As a father of a 20-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, Sylvester has long been an involved parent, volunteering in the classroom, on field trips and serving on the School Advisory Committee.

"Mr. Joe" is a familiar face around campus, sporting a WATCH D.O.G.S. T-shirt and toting a walkie-talkie. "How's everybody doing? Who's ready to learn?" he asks while doling out high fives to students like Skyler Risner, 9.

"He's really nice — a great person," said Skyler, after updating Sylvester on her school day. "I think it will be a great thing for us kids."

Volunteers follow a daily schedule. They spend time in their child's classroom, but also help in the car loop, appear on the morning news show, escort tardy students to class, do perimeter checks around the campus and visit classrooms.

"We have stay-at-home dads, dads who are working two jobs and still come here, dads who work the night shift," Sylvester said.

Already on board is Andrew Walters, whose son Dallyn, 4, is in the pre-K program.

"I thought is was a really good idea," said Walters, who has committed to volunteering every other Wednesday, when he has the day off from his job at Walmart Tire And Lube Express. "It makes the kids feel safe. It puts a smile on their face and it makes me feel good."

And there's Kyle Reese, who spends time with son Isaac Bellotte, 10, on Fridays when he has time off from his job as a Bonefish Grill cook. "Some kids don't have a role model in their life, and at some point you get to be a role model or mentor all the kids there," Reese said. "If I had a bunch of money maybe I'd build a building or something, but all I have is time, so I can invest that."

"It really feels good to have him here," Isaac said. "He really encourages me to work harder and do good."

Michele Miller can be reached at