Fathers at St. Thomas Aquinas Are Helping Students Thrive—and Each Other

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. 

St. Thomas fathers with Academic Dean Tali Collins.

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. 

Every Minute Matters: The National School Attendance Crisis

Posted on the walls of several Partnership Schools and lived out in their daily routines is this root belief: Every minute matters. When it comes to school attendance, ample research demonstrates that to be true; every minute in school matters. And yet in the last few years, too many schools have sent the opposite message. They have communicated that school is inessential. The result? We are facing historic declines in student achievement and historic increases in chronic absenteeism, and a generation of children is at risk. 

The data is as stark as it is clear. Among low-income Kindergarteners, missing just two school days a month is a strong predictor that a student will perform in the lowest levels of reading and math even years later, in fifth grade. By sixth grade, students who miss ten percent or more of school—the equivalent of just two days per month—are far more likely to drop out of high school than those who attend school regularly. 

Alarmingly, the number of students who are “chronically absent”—i.e., the number who miss 10 percent of school each year—has doubled since 2020, from 8 million in 2019 to 16 million by the Spring of 2022. 

There are many factors that have contributed to this sharp rise in absenteeism, but one is the culture that we, as a nation, unintentionally created when we shuttered schools for far longer than was necessary–and for far longer than any other developed nation. Too many national, state, and district leaders put reopening bars and restaurants ahead of schools, and too many told parents “not to worry” if their children fell behind. A post widely shared on social media in the spring of 2020—even by schools—demonstrates this cavalier treatment of the harm that even then school closures were causing:

Across the Partnership Schools, we also experienced a decline in daily attendance, but because we reopened as soon as we were able in fall, 2020—and because we have prioritized rebuilding a culture of daily attendance—that decline is miniscule. Prior to Covid, our schools had daily attendance rates greater than 95 percent. Since Covid, our daily attendance rate has hovered around 91 percent—a number that, while obviously quite strong, we remain committed to improving.

“I watch what I do to see what I believe,” Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, once said—reminding us that to have integrity, our actions must match our words. Continuing to live out our belief that every minute in school matters is a daily call to action that our school leaders are meeting head-on, with a range of intentional strategies.

For example, when the team at St. Athanasius found that the school’s information system didn’t give them the quick, holistic view of attendance they sought each morning, they created their own tracker to speed up identification of students and classes with emerging attendance issues, so teachers and the administration can respond to them quickly. 

They’ve increased communication with all parents about attendance, emphasizing its importance and clarifying what constitutes a legitimate absence. “Please don’t come to school when you are sick,” Principal Jessica Aybar explains. “But if it’s raining, if your uniform pants are still in the dryer, if we’ve got a half-day of school on Friday—none of those are acceptable reasons to miss school, and we make that clear.” 

St. Athanasius Principal Jessica Aybar.

Jessica and other principals also have “courageous, honest, transparent conversations about the very real effect of being absent” with parents whose children are absent often. “I explain that it’s not just two days at home; that’s two math lessons, two English Language Arts lessons. And the truth is that if your child is missing many lessons each month, we can’t catch them up for all that. The teacher is never going to teach that whole lesson again. We are always here to support our students along the way, but the larger the gaps, the harder it is to fill.” She describes the setbacks of frequent absences layered on top of pandemic learning delays as “running on a treadmill and going nowhere.” 

She also works sympathetically with parents on the unglamorous parenting routines that guard the school’s belief that “learning is sacred work.” She says that she and other administrators “need to work with parents to find solutions–’yeah, I really do have to get them to bed earlier’, or pack lunches or lay out uniforms the night before. We’re not calling just to get on your case, but because we really care and want to see your child here,” she adds.

The school also makes the collective impact of individual attendance transparent to students. Every day that a whole class is present, it is a cause for celebration—perhaps a snack or additional free time that can mean a lot to students. “We make it clear to the kids that it is a very good thing when all of you are here.” 

Over the course of months, collective action broke the habit of consistent school attendance for millions of American students, including some of ours. Rebuilding that habit is essential—not just for the sake of the students we are so happy to see every day, but for our communities as a whole.