Although he grew up without a father or male role model, Dwayne Walker is the kind of dad who goes on his 5-year-old son’s school field trips, sits in on his classes, and dresses him in a mint green golf shirt and khaki pants to match his own.

At Dad’s Day in Pre-K, a Detroit district event to help fathers better connect with their young children, the 43-year-old realized how much he has changed over the years. His youngest son, Braylen, was with him at the event.

“I broke the cycle when I became a father. I’m involved, and this is helping me to learn I can do even more as a father and a father figure,” he said.

Walker was one of about 100 fathers who attended Dad’s Day in Pre-K, sponsored by the main district to help remove barriers that prevent fathers from engaging in their children’s lives and their schools.

District leaders are working to get parents more involved in their children’s education through a new Parent Academy, teacher home visits, and other efforts. They also are trying new approaches to get parents to participate when their children are younger — including focusing more on fathers.

A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Family Psychology indicated that the more fathers took part in bathing, dressing, reading, and playing with their infant children, the more these nurturing activities increased as the children got older and started school.  

That’s why the district held its second Dad’s Day, said Franchott R. Cooper, preschool supervisor with the district’s Early Childhood Department, who coordinated the event.

“If we keep the fathers involved from preschool, they’ll be there for elementary school, middle school, and high school,” he said. “They’ll be there to support their children with homework, help them with math, help them with reading, supporting them in their academic pursuits.”

Services that the program helps with include job placement and training, helping to reinstate their driver’s licenses so they can get to work and see their children, and assisting with child support issues. Fathers also got tips on how to nurture their children by reading to them, and advice on helping their mates breastfeed.

Wilma Taylor-Costen, former executive director of the district’s Early Child Education program, came up with the idea for Dad’s Day just before she left the district last year. Her department held the first event of its kind a year ago.

“I recognized there was a gap in early child education with our fathers,  particularly with black fathers” she said. “They have been beaten up a lot and the conversation always is they are not in the home, and they don’t care about their children.

“I wanted to give an opportunity for our fathers to come together in a structured support system and if there were barriers preventing them from being in the child’s life, we would bring the courts, the elders, and services they may need under one roof so they can learn lessons and be great dads.”

Durrail Sanders of Highland Park said he was excited to attend because it was positive food for thought for him and other fathers.

“I’m for anything positive that’s going to better myself as a father, other fathers and our youth,” said Sanders, father of five sons, including 5-year-old Isrrail Simmons, who loves to play basketball video games with his dad. “I can get better at this.”

Keynote speaker, author, and educational consultant Jelani Jabari reminded the fathers of the importance of playing with their children, reading to them, helping them with homework, and simply spending time with them. He said he learned that by making mistakes he didn’t realize he was making. He was so busy being a good provider, and working so much, that he was barely at home.

He said he received a wake-up call on July 1, 2011, when he came home from work early and his youngest son, then 3, looked very confused and asked him why was he home for dinner.

“Dinner time, daddy gone,” his son kept repeating.

The comment left him shocked and speechless, but it prompted him to spend more time with his family.

He reminded the men to avoid being so busy making money that they forget to spend time with their children, and to be engaged in their lives. He urged them to add specific activities, such as reading, doing homework, or coaching their child’s sports team, to add structure to the time they spend with their children.

“We are in this together,” he told the fathers. “There is no manual for teaching dads how to be great fathers. It’s a process. Some of us seem to figure it out earlier than others.”