RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — John Carter is learning the right clothing is a big part of first impressions and how he wants to present himself. It is a lesson he missed out on four years ago when his father passed away.
“The father that I lost I’ve gained, you know,” Carter’s voice trails off while he collects his thoughts. “And Coach has been with me every step of the way.”
“Coach” is Reverend Stephan Hicks, and his ministry is My Brother’s Keeper. “I believe this is my calling,” Coach says.
In 2009, Hicks was doing his own soul searching. He wanted to be the best husband and father he could be. A study group that started in his home evolved into several programs on self-reflection and the role men have in their families and communities.
“The father that I lost I’ve gained, you know? And Coach has been with me every step of the way.” –John Carter
“This ministry really is to provide that type of support to our young men,” Coach explains.
Some participants are adjusting to fatherhood after jail time or grew up in foster care without steady male role models. Others strive to be supportive spouses when they never saw it in their own homes growing up.
“Be able to do the right thing to stay on the right path to be a success in the black community,” Carter says what he has gained from My Brother’s Keeper. Carter adds that he is a better communicator and makes better decisions since Coach and the classes came into his life. He knows it is possible for anyone who takes that first step.
“They can do it. All you have to do is switch your mindset to be positive and let them know that you’re not alone,” Carter shares a message he hopes all men who are struggling hear.
Says Coach, “I would just encourage every man to just jump in.”
Sixteen fathers from the Richmond community joined representatives from the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative (RFFI) and Richmond Public Schools Tuesday, April 5 for a focus group on how to increase father involvement in schools.
The fathers present were recruited by RFFI and had all participated in the fatherhood program. The focus group was facilitated by RFFI Program Coordinator Anthony Mingo, RFFI facilitators Clarence Harris and Stephan Hicks, and Chuck Johnson, Senior Violence Prevention and Attendance Specialist for Richmond Public Schools.
“Parental involvement – by both mothers and fathers – helps kids thrive,” said Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond City Health District, which houses the RFFI program. “Parents are critical partners in the success of our schools, and they need to know that their voices matter.”
Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools Dr. Dana Bedden acknowledged at the start of the focus group that in the past, the school system has not had a very successful relationship with fathers. Dr. Bedden said his goals for the meeting were to hear from fathers themselves what their pain points were with the schools, and find out what fathers believe the schools could do differently to facilitate their engagement. He wanted the fathers to open up and be honest about the shortcomings they saw, both in the schools and in their own efforts.
“I was trying to create a platform to say, ‘Let’s all own some of this,’” he said.
Throughout the evening, the fathers discussed their concerns about the school system, as well as the qualities they would like to see, and what would attract them to become more engaged with their kids and the schools. Common concerns in the group included safety within schools, and issues with discipline and the frequency of suspensions.
“I know that there’s violence in the elementary schools – even gun violence in the schools – but it seems like sometimes what happens to a child depends on where the school is at,” said father of four Isaac Jackson. “I coach, and I hear kids constantly saying they were kicked out of school, kicked out of school, kicked out of school. It seems like there’s not enough effort being made to keep those kids in school.”
Other fathers expressed frustration with the schools’ focus on standardized testing, and what the fathers perceived as unenthusiastic teachers and unhelpful school staff.
“They’re too focused on the SOLs,” said father Melvin Hawkins. “My oldest daughter doesn’t even know how to tell time.”
As for what they’d like to see from the schools, the fathers mentioned good teachers, quality after-school programs, safety, a diverse staff, and improvements to the physical conditions of the schools themselves.
“It’s such a glaring need and it’s not being taken care of,” said Tahlib Dorn, a father who also coaches at the Hillside Recreation Center. “A hole might be patched up at one school, then you hear about it at another school.”
Dr. Bedden said there is a “father connection gap” in Richmond schools, and that the focus group was the first step in figuring out ways to fill it. For next steps, he wants to give the fathers direct access to principals to share their concerns, and also bring them in as “secret shoppers” to test school personnel on their customer service skills. He also encouraged the fathers to take their concerns to the ballot box, and vote for local politicians who are committed to funding the schools and addressing the challenges they face.
At the conclusion of the group, all 16 men in attendance agreed that they would be willing to continue their involvement with RPS.
“I want to empower them to help us make things better,” Dr. Bedden said. “I’m excited. If we make progress with them, they may help us engage other fathers.”