Like countless other dads across the country, Antoine Buchanan spent most of last summer coaching his son’s baseball team, teaching life lessons along with the rules of the game. He knew that as baseball season ended, many of those fathers would not be nearly as involved at school as at the ballpark, and that’s something he’s never understood.

When his son, also named Antoine, started kindergarten at Hattie Cotton Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., Buchanan began enthusiastically volunteering in the classroom, going on field trips, and attending PTO meetings. He was often the only father there.

“A lot of dads don’t do anything [at school], then they try to be supportive when their kid gets in trouble,” Buchanan says. “You’ve got to be there when they’re not doing stuff.”

He knows how important a father’s involvement in a child’s life can be. His own father was not around much when he was growing up, and Buchanan pledged that when he became a father, he’d be involved in all of his child’s activities. “I just felt that it was an important thing for me to be involved in his life all the way around,” he says. “I didn’t want Antoine to experience what I experienced.”

Buchanan’s flexible schedule at the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department has allowed him to be at school often, getting to know his son’s teachers and classmates. His wife, Jolanda, also volunteers, but her work schedule limits what she can do during school hours.

When Antoine entered 2nd grade, Buchanan began the first of two years as copresident of the parent group, called the Cotton Action Team. Over time, he became such a familiar face at the school that students began greeting him as “Antoine’s daddy,” something that never failed to make him smile.

“We were always close,” he says, “but this brought us closer.”

Helping Kids at School

Buchanan is aware that he’s been a role model not just for his son but also for all of the other kids he’s encountered at Hattie Cotton. Most come from needy families: 93 percent of the school’s 500-plus students qualify for the free or reduced-price school lunch program. Some have less than ideal home lives. At a school career day, Buchanan talked about his job with the police department—he works in the identification unit, confirming identities and checking aliases. When it came time for questions, hands shot up in the air, and several students asked him if he knew their family members who were in jail.

“Some kids up there have a crazy, rough childhood,” he says. “I want to make school a safe haven so when they come each day, they have a smile on their face.”

Under the leadership of Buchanan and copresident Denoris Hamer, the Cotton Action Team made the school an inviting place for students and parents alike. A series of family fun nights drew hundreds to the school for movies, games, and educational experiences.

More than 15 Nashville celebrities participated in reading night, including Nashville Kats arena football players, Miss America 2004, and local news anchors and reporters. Country music fans came out to see Lorrie Morgan and Sammy Kershaw, and many Hispanic families enjoyed meeting a popular Spanish radio DJ. After the celebrities read to students, they stayed for an autograph session and photographs. Antoine was thrilled to meet the football players as well as the Tennessee State University band director; his father performed in the popular Drumline-style marching band in college.

For another event, families came to school for a free movie night with low-cost concessions. Students selected two movies, which were shown in the school cafeteria and gym. Many children lounged on sleeping bags and pillows while they munched on popcorn and hot dogs.

Knowing how much his involvement at school meant to his son, Buchanan actively recruited other parents for a new volunteer program. Parents who logged at least three volunteer hours received construction paper feet on the Parents’ Walk of Fame. On his visits to school, Buchanan frequently saw children looking at the collection of 85 feet for their own parents’ names.

He regularly approached fathers at school and asked them to give whatever time they could, and it appears to have worked. Since Buchanan’s stint in a leadership role, there has been a marked increase in male participation at school, according to Karen Hamilton, the school’s principal.

Focus on Family

Both of Antoine’s parents say their son has been positively affected by his father’s involvement at school. In addition to strengthening the father-son bond, Buchanan’s involvement has helped Antoine academically, Jolanda says. Antoine has worked consistently to improve his grades, and he recently began to excel in math.

“He’ll volunteer for more things to help the teacher out, such as reading out loud or helping out with the younger kids,” she says.

Buchanan believes his frequent visits help prevent his “very high-energy” son from misbehaving at school. “It keeps him focused on discipline,” he says. “He never knows when I’m going to be in school.”

If Antoine is too talkative or hyperactive in class, his dad doesn’t hesitate to talk to him when he’s at school. “I tell him he’s not at school just to shuck and jive and play around all day,” Buchanan says. “He has to get his work done.”

Buchanan is grateful for all the time he’s spent with his son by being involved. Antoine has moved up to middle school, and his parents know it won’t be long before he wants to spend more time with his friends and less time with them.

Although he’s retired from his post as copresident, Buchanan says he’ll continue to stay active at school. He wants to show Antoine that he has the strong support of both of his parents in all that he does.

“Hopefully he’ll take what we taught him,” Buchanan says, “and when he has kids, he’ll do the same thing.”

Emily Graham is a senior editor for School Family Media. She lives with her family in Oklahoma.