A group of seven fifth-graders clambered around the lunch table at Talbott Springs Elementary School in Columbia, eagerly awaiting their chance to arm-wrestle parent Mark Scott.
"Look at these guns," Scott jokingly taunted the students as he pointed at his bicep.
Starting with his 10-year-old son, Jonathan, Scott gave each one of the students an opportunity to take a shot, with no success. The kids didn't mind. And Scott loved every minute of it.
Scott has been coming to the school once a month on Mondays, his day off from work, as part of the Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) program, which encourages fathers or adult males to spend the day at school, where they do everything from assisting teachers with lessons to eating lunch with students.
It's one of an increasing number of programs in Howard County and across the state that are bringing men into the classroom, helping overcome a traditional bias about gender roles in schools and exposing children to a wider range of role models and mentors.
"We have a huge issue with the availability of males in the classroom at the elementary and middle school," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
A program like Watch DOGS "doesn't just benefit young men, it also benefits young women," Grasmick said. "Many of them are growing up in households without positive male role models."
Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at the Johns Hopkins University, has seen a major push to increase the male presence in schools in the eight years she has been able to track such data.
"People really want to increase involvement and make it helpful for students," she said. "It's not involvement for involvement's sake."
Last year in Baltimore, city schools chief Andr?s Alonso challenged the community to produce 500 volunteers to work in the school system after several high-profile violent incidents occurred in and around Baltimore schools. More than 1,400 people expressed interest in volunteering. Of those, 500 passed the screening process; 40 percent of the volunteers were male.
In Anne Arundel County, the second annual African-American Young Men's Conference was held last month at Broadneck High School in Annapolis. More than 30 men ran seminars for the students that addressed financial literacy, health and fitness, and applying for college financial aid. The conference was run by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which has provided mentoring at a number of schools in the county. African-American fraternities have traditionally had a strong presence in working with students in the region and across the nation.
At Cradlerock School in Columbia, fathers and other men who play significant roles in the lives of kindergartners eat lunch with the students during Meals With Magnificent Men. The event, which takes place near Thanksgiving each year, has been in existence for five years.
Grasmick also praised the efforts of the 100 Black Men of Maryland, which has provided mentoring in public schools and has been active across the state.
She said: "It's really a wonderful program."
Roughly three-fourths of the 1,100 schools that Epstein's center tracks are using some program that encourages greater male involvement in the school, she said. School officials have done everything from asking men to come in to build bookshelves for the library, to recruiting fathers to come to school and eat a doughnut with their child while completing an art project, according to Epstein.
"This is a definite press across the country in places that are trying to improve the participation overall and make it pertinent," Epstein said.
Epstein's center identifies Watch DOGS as an example of "best practices."
"We're not just talking about an activity out of the blue sky," Epstein said. "We're talking about a need to organize activities that will support student success."
The program, which was started in Arkansas during the late 1990s in response to a school shooting at a Jonesboro middle school, is intended to thwart violence by increasing the adult male presence in a traditionally female-dominated setting. However, educators in Howard are using the program more for its emphasis on increasing positive male role models in the schools.
Laurie Lerman, the PTA president at Bellows Spring Elementary School in Columbia, brought the Watch DOGS program to Howard last year after learning about it from a friend. The program has become so successful that it averages two male volunteers per day.
"Moms are always there. We always get their input. Men don't always have the same way of seeing and doing things. It sends a message to have them there. They haven't been in the elementary school since they were in elementary school themselves," she said.