On any given school day this spring at St. Thomas Aquinas School on Cleveland’s east side, you can look down the hall and see something that may not be a common sight in other elementary schools: dads.
“I love getting up every morning and coming here,” Ricardo Richmond explains. You’ll see him do for all sorts of students in the hall what he does for his twin daughters at home: give a high-five, help a student learn to tie a loose shoelace, or listen to a young person who is having a frustrating day. You’ll see Jeff Allen do the same many afternoons, along with a handful of other dads. Mr. Allen also has two daughters at the school, but they are not the only reasons why he is there. “Every kid here is mine through God,” he explains.
Helping all God’s children at St. Thomas Aquinas “down the right path” is the mission of these fathers. In late winter, they answered a call from the school’s dean, Tali Collins, for dads who might be willing to spend time at the school during the day—”not to be scary,” she explains, but “to walk the path of excellence with students.” The school, commonly referred to as “STA” by members of the community, calls the dad’s group “STAnd Together.” Mr. Richmond and Mr. Allen have stood together with the students almost every day since.
As volunteers, they join in the work that another St. Thomas dad—Alex Afzal—does daily in his work as the school’s operations manager, who interacts with students and parents daily. “I think every school should have a stronger male presence,” Mr. Afzal says—and he acts on that belief by working at his children’s school.
Middle schoolers King and Elijah explain what all three fathers do. “They check on you. They really care. They listen.” Elijah explains that a frustrating comment from a fellow student the day before “got my emotions a little out of control,” and King encouraged him to go talk with Mr. Richmond, who “made sure I was OK.” And just knowing they are cared for by men in the community who model concern for others has had an impact that King notices: “it’s quieter in the hallways”—and Elijah adds, “more peaceful.”
Mr. Richmond and Mr. Allen make it clear that the nurture they are providing is far from what they experienced as children. “The streets raised me,” Mr. Richmond explains, “not parents or school.” Mr. Allen reflects frankly that his early years as a dad were not ones he’s proud of—which makes the second chance that he has to raise his stepdaughters and help their classmates all the more important to him.
It is their imperfections as much as their skills that drive Mr. Allen and Mr. Richmond to show up as dads at the school every day. “I want my children to go where I am going, not where I have been,” Mr. Richmond says candidly.
“I am in the healing process,” Mr. Allen adds. “And that’s where our power comes from.” He also shares that spending time with other dads at St. Thomas has helped him develop a few new approaches. “I’ve learned from Richmond here,” he says with a grin; “he’s good at calming kids down.”
Having parents roaming the halls might create challenges to school culture, rather than reinforcing it. But Dean Tali Collins was clear with the dads about the value they bring, and the dads have embraced the spirit of collaboration that inspired her to reach out in the first place. “We can’t overshadow the teachers,” Mr. Allen explains. “We’ve got a lot of humility in our walk here.”
Having your dad in the hallway might also be unwelcome for some children, and Mr. Richmond’s daughter Amanda admits that at first, “I was embarrassed” to have him at school so often. But now she and her sister Chloe—along with Mr. Allen’s stepdaughters Releesha and Theresa—agree that it “feels good” to watch their dads help others.
Mr. Richmond, the hard-working single father of twin girls, does not hesitate to explain that “God blessed me” with his children, “and being able to sacrifice for other people’s children in the school while mine are watching” is an added blessing. All three hope similar models of father involvement can spread to other schools.
It is the true spirit of partnership—of parents, educators, and supporters coming together to give children what none of them alone can provide—that gives our schools their power. While that collaboration may look different from school to school—and from decades past at Catholic schools—it is as valuable now at each Partnership school as it was decades ago, when they were first founded by and for the communities they continue to serve. And at St. Thomas Aquinas this spring, it is fathers who are making the community stronger.