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Dads are the 'Supermen' students need

By Roland C. Warren, Special to CNN
  • Roland Warren says "Waiting for 'Superman'" shows problems of public schools
  • He says fixing system only part of solution; other part is getting absent dads involved
  • Kids from absent-dad homes fare poorly in school compared with homes with a father
  • Warren: Dads must show up; schools, PTAs, communities must be father-friendly

Editor's note: Roland C. Warren is the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works to engage fathers in the lives of their children.

(CNN) -- The performance of America's public schools is embarrassing. That is the message of the compelling documentary "Waiting for 'Superman.' "

The film's title is intended to be a metaphor: America's schoolchildren wait for a savior to come and fix a system that prevents kids from achieving their potential, in the same way people would wait for Superman to arrive at the last minute to save a runaway school bus about to plunge off a bridge.

However, being as focused on responsible fatherhood as I am, I want to stretch the metaphor a bit further.

As you may recall, the "real" Superman was born on the planet Krypton. Just before his home planet is destroyed, Superman's father places him in a rocket and sends him off as the planet's last survivor. The rocket lands on Earth, where the little boy is found by a Kansas farmer and his wife, who raise him as Clark Kent. He discovers that as a Kryptonian, he has evolved powers while on Earth. He decides to use these powers to help people, fight crime and make the world a better place.

It's no secret that in America today, many families live in neighborhoods that are being ravaged daily by crime, poverty and drugs. In their desperation, parents place their children in a "rocket" called the public school system, which is supposed to lift children out of hopeless situations to a better future.

Video: Documentary slams public education
Video: Reformers offer hope

They are hopeful that when the rocket lands, a Superman will emerge who can get into college, start a career and make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, this rarely goes as planned. Instead, in too many communities, parents are sending children into dropout factories that do a miserable job of educating students, let alone preparing them for college and a career.

The film makes a persuasive case for how to fix the system, and it needs fixing. But the system is only part of the equation. Parents are the other part, and from that perspective, parents, especially dads, should not be waiting, but getting more engaged, focused and involved.

Of the five families portrayed in "Waiting for 'Superman,'" the father appears to be living in the home in three of them. And only one of those dads says a word on camera throughout the film. His daughter, Daisy, incidentally, seems to be the most ambitious and least troubled of the group.

All of the other family interviews are with moms and grandmothers. Dad is in the background. Education is apparently mom's territory. In one scene, a mom is shown trying to help her three young children do their homework. Where is the father? Another mom is struggling to keep her apartment and pay parochial school tuition. Where is the father?

As many as eight in 10 children in many of our nation's most disadvantaged neighborhoods live in father-absent homes. Study after study confirms children from father-absent homes are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to repeat a grade, less likely to enjoy school, less likely to be read to on a daily basis, less likely to get A's and more likely to misbehave in school.

While the public school system sorts itself out, it seems there are a few things that have to happen at home as well to ensure the success of our students.

Parents must be more engaged in their children's education, and it takes two. Moms and dads have to read to their children, help them with homework, keep books in the house, talk to them about school and take them to libraries and museums.

Fathers specifically must be more involved in their children's academic lives, because they play an irreplaceable role that no program or system can replace. For example, recent studies show that children enjoy reading more when both parents read to them.

Dads must get more involved by joining their local PTA, regularly volunteering at their child's school and taking part in parent-teacher conferences. For these things to happen, the schools and their supporting organizations must become more father-friendly; they have to change their cultures to make dads feel welcomed and wanted.

Finally, more father involvement means more support for moms, which enables them to invest more in their children. When a father is around, everyone wins.

In the most emotionally wrenching sequence of "Waiting for 'Superman'," we see the five families attending the lotteries that will determine whether their children will attend a high-quality charter school instead of the underperforming public school in their neighborhood. Four of the five students are not selected. It is heartbreaking to watch their reactions.

Unfortunately, there will always be too few spots in good charter schools for most children to have a chance to attend. That is why all schools must perform.

That said, there should never be too few dads to help their kids do well in school; every child comes with one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland C. Warren.