Meal opens way to involvement

Cradlerock School's annual event lets kindergartners share a day with the men in their lives

Education Beat


Sitting at a crowded cafeteria table, eating a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes at 10:30 in the morning, Dwight Sweatt made a vow.

He was so moved by the experience that he promised he would attend as many school events as he could in the future. "That's my goal," he said.

On Thursday, Sweatt was attending the second Meals with Magnificent Men lunch at Cradlerock School, an event that is part Thanksgiving feast, part opportunity for kindergartners to share their school with the men in their lives.

The visitors weren't limited to fathers. Uncles, grandfathers and brothers also attended. Inevitably, some kids came without relatives. For them, about 10 officials of the county public school filled the void. And because Cradlerock serves students through grade eight, 15 eighth-graders also participated, said Jason McCoy, the school principal. No child was without an older male.

Sweatt, who rearranged his work schedule so he could share the meal with his son, Brandon, 6, said the kids without relatives were "looking really sad." That's what made him vow to attend as many school events as possible.

Meanwhile, Brandon, suffering a sudden attack of shyness, ducked under the table, ignoring his pizza, which was available for kids who didn't want the more traditional meal. But he emerged, smiling, when asked what he had received for his birthday the day before. The answer: a lot of SpongeBob stuff.

Sweatt, a manager at the Ikea in College Park, has two older sons, and he has noticed over the years that fathers are becoming more involved in school events. "I've been coming to a lot of functions - field trips - and you see a lot of fathers coming out now," he said.

That's certainly a change from the Ozzie-and-Harriet past, when mothers were expected to be in charge of the kids and dads were in charge of making money.

Phil Bray, sitting next to his oldest son, 5-year-old Joe, doesn't remember his father attending many school events when he was a child, but maybe that is because he was the youngest of seven, he said. By the time he was in elementary school, his parents were grappling with the roller-coaster teen years of his older siblings, he said.

Whatever the reason, Bray is determined to attend school events and be involved in the lives of his children. The two Brays sat across from Kevin Fitzgerald and his son, Nicholas, 5. Kevin also said he did not remember his father attending many school functions.

Though it was not yet 11 a.m., the dads were tucking into the lunch of sliced turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, peas, fruit salad and a roll. But Joe seemed more interested in playing with the cranberry sauce, and Nicholas had picked up some crayons. The tables were covered with construction paper, and doodling was encouraged.

Mike Bove said he took a day off from work to share lunch with his daughter, 5-year-old Samantha. "Parental involvement is very important," he said as Samantha giggled and grabbed his arm. After lunch, Bove and the other "magnificent males" were invited back to the kids' classrooms for stories.

The 71 kindergartners at Cradlerock are enrolled in the Judy School, a birth-through-age-5 early-intervention program, now in its fourth year at Cradlerock, run through the county school system.

"We were looking for ways to access significant males in children's lives. It may be a dad, it may be a boyfriend of mom's, it may be a grandpa," said Mary Nalepa, the school psychologist at the Judy Center. Henry Onukwugha, for example, was attending the event with his niece, 5 year-old Andrea, because his brother could not make it. "He would have loved to be here," Onukwugha said of his brother.

Last year, Nalepa said, all but seven of the students were able to bring in a relative. This year, the turnout was not as good, perhaps because of the earlier lunch time, she said.

As the meal wound down, Principal McCoy stood on the stage in front of the room and gave a speech. "It's very important that you stay active in your kids' lives," he said.

Later, he said he was pleased to see so many men at the event. "It makes such a big difference when the males come in," McCoy said. "Especially at the kindergarten level - for the boys as well as the girls."

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