Phil Hanlen arrived early for his first meeting as treasurer of the Loma Vista Elementary Parent Teacher Organization.
He took a seat as other members began entering the room.
"As the chairs started filling in I quickly realized I was sitting in a room full of 20 to 30 moms, and I'm the dad," Hanlen said.
That realization was the catalyst for the Loma Vista Dads, a group Hanlen founded in June for men to volunteer at the school in Tustin. More than 100 men have joined so far. The men wear shirts emblazoned with "Manpower" as they strut about the school, helping with morning drop-off and school fundraisers.
A couple of miles away, men in Tustin Memorial Academy's HEROES group are busy earning volunteer hours.
Sean Nitzen and Duncan Miller are co-chairs of HEROES, which stands for "helping enrich the resources of every student." The group dates back to 2003, when former principal Cindy Agopian started the first organized group of men volunteering in Tustin Unified. Now, more than 30 men are active volunteers.
"Moms were the ones that did all the work," Nitzen said. "We kind of tapped into a new resource ... and to get them to play a bigger role."
He spends about three hours a month working at the Tustin Memorial Academy, and is helping the Loma Vista Dads get started.
"The whole point of it is for the dads to be more involved in their kids' curriculum and be on campus," Nitzen said.
Tustin Unified does not require volunteers to submit to background checks because they work under supervision of district employees, said spokesman Mark Eliot.
Across Tustin, schools are seeing more dads, brothers, uncles and grandpas show up to help out. And it's not limited to Tustin schools – schools nationwide are seeing an increase in men volunteering for all manner of tasks.
A SIMPLE REASON
James Martinez, spokesman for the Virginia-based National PTA, says men across the country are stepping up to play a bigger role in childhood education. In the past 115 years, men involved in PTA had remained steadily at 3 percent, Martinez said.
The National PTA held a survey in 2000 asking men why they were not involved in parent-teacher organizations.
"The No. 1 answer was because they were never asked. So we started asking," Martinez said. The national group encouraged PTAs to create male-friendly programs starting in 2001. By 2008, participation had leapt to a historic high of 10 percent.
In 2009, the National PTA installed the first man as president in the organization's 114-year history. Last year, the group installed its first African American man as president. And the MORE alliance – Men Organized to Raise Engagement – was formed.
"We're breaking a lot of glass ceilings here recently," Martinez said. "It's a historic time for PTA and for parent involvement overall."
This year, male participation is up to 15 percent, and the National PTA is holding an engagement summit for men – a three-day event honoring male role models. The number of men as PTA presidents at schools increased to about 20 percent in 2012.
"Decades of research show a direct link between parent involvement and student achievement regardless of socioeconomic status, religion, race, background," Martinez said. However, he added that student academic success rises when both parents are involved.
"Parent involvement is paramount in the success of the performance of schools," Nitzen said. Having active parents also eases the burden on teachers, he said.
"This is all great news, but there is still a lot of work to do," Martinez said.
GETTING MORE MEN INVOLVED
Phil Hanlen recalls telling his father that he'd joined the Loma Vista Elementary PTO.
"He's giving me a funny look, asking if I'm serious, and says, 'The PTO – that's a mom thing. Do you know what you're getting yourself into?'" Hanlen said. He stuck with it.
Women still make up the majority of parent-teacher groups, though more men are joining these days. Gender-specific groups give the fathers a place to fit in.
"It's usually pretty fun if you get a bunch of dads in the room who have a similar sense of humor," said Brian Ramos of Bonita Canyon School in Irvine. The campus invites men a few times a year to meet for an update on happenings at the school. Often, men won't get involved if mothers are active volunteers, he said.
"I noticed moms were doing all the work. Only moms were involved in PTA and events," said Hiram Aviles, a founder of Brywood Elementary Dads in Irvine, whose members number about 45. They help out the PTA. Each year in February, the dads hold a talent show fundraiser. Aviles' kids moved on to Sierra Vista Middle School, and he's now the head of the Sierra Vista Charger Dads.
Like the Brywood Dads, the 75 members of the Woodbury Elementary Dads club in Irvine also help the PTA.
Anthony Bonfiglio says fathers in the club have formed strong friendships – as well as softball and soccer teams – and often get together socially.
"It's always about the kids, enriching those kids' lives," Bonfiglio said. "That's the biggest reason any of us should do this."
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