Fathers Are on the March ... to School ; A New Initiative Is Encouraging Minority Fathers across the United States to Become More Involved in Their Children's Education

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The men standing in the entry hall of Amistad Academy have a wide- eyed look that people get when they don't know what's going to happen next. They are the first arrivals at a morning event for the men in the lives of middle-school students here. Only when a few dozen more men arrive do the smiles start to emerge.

Whether they got the announcement a week before or just as their child was heading out the door, they are here - fathers, grandfathers, and uncles taking time off work for participation in a national effort dubbed the Million Father March.

Organized by the Black Star Project in Chicago, a nonprofit focused on helping low-income black, Hispanic, and American Indian students, the effort is designed to encourage fathers to place themselves more front and center in their children's schooling. Schools in some 80 cities around the United States, as well as in Auckland, New Zealand, have participated this year - calling on men to walk children to school on the first day or to participate in events such as this one as the school year gets under way.

The initiative borrows its name from Louis Farrakhan's famous Million Man March, and in many neighborhoods it's particularly geared toward African-American men. But it's sometimes harder to get men into schools than it is to get them to march on Washington, says Phillip Jackson, Black Star's executive director. Some simply don't think it will make a difference, while others don't feel welcome.

"If a man goes in with the child's mother, all the conversation is directed at the mother," Mr. Jackson says. "Black men feel as though they're being marginalized, and so a large part of their response is to withdraw.... We're working overtime to try to break down those barriers - to let men know how important they are and then to get schools to welcome them."

In the United States, about one-third of all children, 24 million of them, live apart from their biological father, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative. But various studies have indicated that when fathers stay involved, students are less likely to repeat a grade, drop out, or develop problems such as substance abuse.

"Increasingly, schools, districts, and state leaders know they must reach out to fathers and to other family partners who are important in their children's lives," says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Ms. Epstein cites one school that recently hosted a breakfast for dads and other male figures. It was held on a Saturday, to avoid work conflicts. "Instead of it just being a fun activity ... it was really a celebration of children's writing," she says, stressing that "it's not just involvement for involvement's sake - it's involvement with a purpose."

One purpose this morning at Amistad is to enlist the dads and other men to help students demonstrate the values in the school motto: REACH - Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship, Hard Work.

"It's important for the kids today because with all the situations surrounding them, they need a little bit of daddy," says Eli Rosario, whose visit to Amistad today is his first. He rests a hand on his son Jacob's shoulder as the seventh-grader introduces him to a few friends and their fathers.

Nearby, fifth-grader Joey Wiley nibbles a doughnut and chats with his grandfather, Eric Wiley. The purpose of the day, Joey says, is to "show appreciation for how much they support you, how they hang out with you when you're sad. It's a chance to do something for them instead of them always doing something for us."

The main event is the "morning circle" - a ritual at this charter school that blends pep-rally zeal with serious messages about expectations inside and outside the classroom. Drummers in the center of the gym send loud pulses into the air as students, teachers, and fathers line up shoulder to shoulder around the rectangular border. …