Fathers deserve some extra credit from city schools

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The headline in the Pittsburgh Courier baffled me: "Take a Father to School Comes Under Attack.''

Huh? I'd been one of about 5,000 dads who visited a city school on May 20. (That my sixth-grade daughter still wishes to be seen with her father is a lucky streak I intend to ride as long as it lasts.)

Apart from my flashback fears of detention, the day went swimmingly, with a lot of kids eager to show off their smarts in front of the men in the little chairs.

So what was up with this March memo from Superintendent Linda Lane to the school board outlining negative feedback about the annual day? It's still rankling board member Mark Brentley, who initiated this fatherly event in 1999.

I called Ms. Lane, who told me she regrets putting the critique in written form because she's actually a fan of the program.

"It sends a nice message to children and it's a pretty nice bonding experience,'' she said.

This hubbub only proves my long-held theory: Anything can be a controversy if you just try hard enough.

It's no surprise Mr. Brentley, the coolly contentious North Side representative, is in the middle of this. He's not shy about being out front on issues, but rarely gathers other board members to back him. Thus he winds up looking like a guy racing a rowboat with one oar. As he himself put it at that March board meeting:

"Folks in the viewing audience don't understand the hatred of this board for whatever Mark presents.''

Or as he put it to me the other day, the other board members' default position with him is: "We don't like your politics and we don't like your bow tie.''

This brouhaha resulted from Mr. Brentley's seemingly benign proposal to add a Take a Mother To School Day to the May school calendar. That idea went over like Lady Gaga at a church meeting.

Other board members said, hey, we have nothing against mothers, but there wouldn't be enough time to plan for this and it would burden the staff. Ms. Lane relayed one principal's observation that Take a Father to School Day "had led to students [being] emotional, tearful, disruptive when they're expecting someone and they don't show up.''

Yeah, once in Cub Scouts, my dad was too sick to go to this contest where I'd fly a rickety rocket we carved from balsa wood. I bawled. Oddly, though, neither of my parents saw this as a reason for the Cub Scouts to cancel the event.

Ms. Lane's list of concerns, gathered from principals, cited everything from "potential safety risks'' to expense. Conspicuously absent was any praise for an event that manages to attract thousands of fathers, grandfathers, uncles and older brothers, most of whom took time off from work or otherwise rearranged schedules to spend part of the day with children they love.

There hasn't been a single safety incident in the 13 years he has led the event, Mr. Brentley said in March. "School districts would fight to get this kind of parental involvement even if it is one day."

I've often disagreed with Mr. Brentley, but he's justifiably proud of "my baby,'' this special fathers' day. He started it before he was even a board member, and the 1999 launch was a fitting prologue to his tenure: Contemporary news accounts say school officials weren't ready.

"Not even the superintendent knew,'' a schools spokeswoman said when Mr. Brentley announced on a Thursday that fathers should attend class the next Tuesday.

Only a handful of men showed up that first year, but in the past three years the turnout has ranged from nearly 4,900 to more than 5,700.

Mr. Brentley got no support for Take a Mother to School this year. In fairness, that would take planning and might well be redundant. Schools have been welcoming mothers on Take a Father to School Day.

"I don't think anybody's saying fathers can come and mothers can't,'' Ms. Lane said.

She recalled that, when her son C.J. was in middle school in Iowa, she spent a whole day with him to his chagrin.

"It was at least one day that he paid attention,'' Ms. Lane said. "He's 26 and his friends are still talking about it. It kind of rocked their world.''

Pittsburgh multiplies that by 5,000 every year. That's not always easy, but it rocks.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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