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More men join, lead area education groups

Fargo City PTA President Randy Long hands a dictionary to Alexcia Hagen in Erika Peterson's fourth-grade class at Madison Elementary recently as part of a literacy project sponsored by the Fargo City PTA and F-M Rotary Club. (Carrie Snyder/The Forum)

FARGO -- As "Randy Red Shoes," he clowns around on the job, but when it comes to his daughter's education, Randy Long gets serious.

This summer, he was elected president of the Fargo Public School's City Parent Teacher Association - the second man in its history to hold the two-year volunteer role.

When PTA members say, "This isn't your mom's PTA," they mean it.

In recent years, the makeup of local parent-teacher groups has dramatically changed with fathers increasingly joining an organization traditionally left to moms.

For Long, the reason is simple: He does it to pay something forward.

"It's the right thing to do," he said.

As PTA demographics shift, more men seem to agree.

North Dakota PTA President Carla Solem said an estimated three-fourths of PTA officers now have part- or full-time jobs and, within the past five years, more men have taken on leadership roles.

"It's really key we try to increase the male involvement," she said. "Male involvement is the No. 1 indicator of a child's success in school."

It's so important that the state group - and many others across the country - started a new leadership role this year aimed solely at getting more men involved with schools.

Sean Brotherson, the state PTA's male involvement chairman, is also a family science professor at North Dakota State University.

"Too often, I think we dismiss the importance of fathers in the lives of children," said the Fargo father of seven. "Fathers are perhaps the largest untapped resource in America today for the well-being of children."

Long, a single father of a Ben Franklin Middle School eighth-grader, has volunteered with PTAs for nine years and speaks strongly about how the organizations help not just his daughter, but others'.

"I believe in what PTAs do," he said.

And he isn't alone.

"(Fathers) are starting to get more and more ... involved," Long said. "They care about their kids just as much."

Yet men still have a long ways to go. In the National PTA, 90 percent of its members are still women.

It means that, at Fargo's Centennial Elementary PTA meetings, Fargo father Todd Liebenow is often one of two men at the table. While many adults juggle hectic schedules, he said moms still tend to find time to get involved with their child's school.

"It's a whole mom thing," said Liebenow, whose son is a fourth-grader at the school. "They want to be involved. Dads don't necessarily have that same inclination."

Those who are inclined to get involved, he added, tend to choose stereotypically male activities.

"I see that dads probably don't see that as important as getting involved with baseball or hockey," Liebenow said.

He and other PTA leaders hope to change that, encouraging fathers to get involved in their children's academics as well.

"I think that (stigma) is less and less common today," Brotherson said.

In November, Long will discuss how to get more men involved at a conference hosted by the National PTA, which has seen its own change recently.

The national group inducted its first male president this year after 112 years of female leaders.

"That's a huge change," Long said. "It just takes one. If you get something men care about ... they'll respond."

It takes events like Centennial Elementary School's First LEGO League, which Liebenow is starting this month.

Long hopes to start more traditionally masculine activities like that at area schools to encourage fathers to get involved.

He'd even like to get more grandparents, community members and non-parents on board.

"Let's go beyond 'Donuts for Dad,'" he said. "You need everybody more than ever."