$30,000 Donation Makes Playground Possible

Marengo Elementary School Grandmother Thanked for Gift


Ed Donnelly is one good-natured dude.

Like others, he cares immensely about kids, so much that Donnelly and a bunch of local dads never fail in going the extra mile to help them.

After all, they’re the D.U.D.E.S. – the acronym for Dads Uniting Dads in Education and Service. And service, points out Donnelly, is the key word in their name. “Our mission is to support the kids at the schools and help the faculty and PTA,” said Donnelly, the president of the organization, explaining the origin of the D.U.D.E.S., formed about a year and a half ago when six Marengo Elementary School dads got behind the idea of giving back to the campus.

Today, the D.U.D.E.S. have grown to about 130 active members representing all three elementary schools in South Pasadena. About a dozen in the group, clad in bright orange t-shirts, were on hand Friday morning for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially reopen the playground at Marengo Elementary School and thank Barbara Lew, a grandmother of a student on campus, for her generous donation of $30,000 to make it happen.

For the project to come fully together, it took the dedication of many others, including one key individual, beyond the support of the D.U.D.E.S.

The playground is a culmination of an overall shade project envisioned and managed by landscape architect and PTA Site Beautification Committee Chair Amy Jones. Donnelly on behalf of the D.U.D.E.S, received a generous check from donor Lew, and worked closely with Jones to put in a new irrigation system, eight new trees and resurface the entire playground over spring break. All of the upgrades are designed to reduce the ambient heat by about 10 to 15 degrees, keeping students much cooler on hot days. While kids took a week off from school, a professional crew was busy at work, laying down the new playground surface. “The D.U.D.E.S would like to thank you guys – the kids of Marengo, for inspiring us to make this the best place we can make it for you,”

Donnelly told Marengo students during Friday’s assembly. “This is a big addition to Marengo,” added the school’s principal, Kim Sinclair. “Every single child at Marengo gets to benefit from this playground.”

Sinclair stressed the project was a united effort between Lew’s donation, Marengo PTA, the school district and the D.U.D.E.S. “In collaborating, we were able to bring this beautiful playground to Marengo,” she said, noting it started with Lew. “Without her contribution, we wouldn’t have a new playground.”

New SPUSD Superintendent Geoff Yantz liked what he saw during Friday’s assembly, praising the work of those involved. “I think you’ve set a new standard for playgrounds in the school district and, actually, around the region,” he said.

After Yantz acknowledged his appreciation, Donnelly asked Lew and her grandson, Douglas, a student at Marengo, to join him on the stage. “Since the beginning of the school year, the D.U.D.E.S. set out to fulfill Mrs. Sinclair’s vision to repair and upgrade this playground,” Donnelly told the crowd. “This was made possible through the support of a very generous grandmother here at the school, Barbara Lew. As we were trying to find ways to do this work, Barbara stepped forward and said, ‘I support the D.U.D.E.S., I love the kids at Marengo, and I want to do this.” Lew, Donnelly and the D.U.D.E.S., Jones, the PTA and Yantz were all credited for their dedicated efforts by Sinclair, many holding a giant symbolic $30,000 check on an outdoor stage celebrating the achievement.

The PTA was highly instrumental in raising funds for eight new trees. “Within two week’s time we had enough money donated to purchase all of them,” said Sara Shaffer, the Marengo PTA’s executive vice president.

Prior to cutting the ribbon for the new playground, Lew, with the help of her grandson, encouraged the assemblage of kids to shout in unison: “We love Marengo!”

Indeed, they do, enthusiastically welcoming the new addition to their school.

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What’s it take to make a playground feel like new? D.U.D.E.S., of course.

Dads Uniting Dads in Education and Service was started in 2012 by six dads in South Pasadena. Their aim was to focus their energies  and do things. Take action and do things that would improve the educational resources for the kids in the area.

Secure enough in their identity to choose orange as their group color (shirts, ball caps, hoodies, etc.), D.U.D.E.S. has grown from 6 to 103 active members.

This past week they gathered at Marengo Elementary School to dedicate a new playground. Principal Kim Sinclair had expressed her desire for a new playground to replace the old, faded and extremely hot playground they’d had for far too long. She wanted a surface that would reduce the radiant heat on the playground by 10 to 15 degrees.

DUDES coordinated with the PTA and school district officials, then raised $30,000 (many thanks going to Barbara Lew, “a very sweet grandmother, who donated a large sum of the money for the project”), and they resurfaced the playground, put in a new irrigation system, and planted new trees.

We’re told that success of the project was due to not only the hard work of the DUDES, but to their “quick wits.” That must be a story in and of itself. (Any DUDES out there? Care to share?)

Cheers to these local fathers…



Groups to Host Poker Night and Fundraiser Saturday

Saturday Night in the City

Local community groups Moms For Community (MFC) and Dads Uniting Dads in Education (D.U.D.E.S) invite South Pasadena residents to a poker night and fundraiser for  Burn Quest and The Place on behalf of South Pasadena Fire Fighters Association.
Held at a private residence in South Pasadena, the event will include food, drinks, desserts, as well as a silent auction and a Texas hold ‘em poker tournament with prizes for the top three contestants.

This event will take place at 1215 Garfield Avenue on Saturday June 7,  at 7 p.m., and will feature catering from the pub Griffins of Kinsale and desserts from Heirloom Bakery and Union Bakery.  Tito’s homemade Vodka will be sponsoring a signature drink. There will be music, plenty of  food, an open bar and a silent auction.

The Fire Fighters Association will use proceeds from the event to provide support for Burn Quest and The Place.  Burn Quest is a non-profit organization managed by fire fighters and civilians who volunteer their services and are dedicated to assist those that have been affected by burn injuries. Donations are distributed to local burn centers and foundations, as well as burn survivors and their families.  For more information, please visit

The Place is a free teen center focused on providing a safe hangout environment for kids ages 13-18 and can to engage in park-run activities and contemporary teen-issue discussion groups.  The Place was founded in 2010 with the belief that all young people deserve a safe place to grow into socially and emotionally healthy adults.  The Place can be found on Facebook.
“The D.U.D.E.S and the Moms for Community put their full support behind our first responders here in South Pasadena.  Most of us have personally been assisted by our Fire Fighters as they have responded to medical emergencies, fires and auto accidents. We and MFC are proud to give something back to them as they support The Place and Burn Quest,” noted D.U.D.E.S. President Ed Donnelly.

The buy-in to play in the tournament is $100. Players can pre-register and donate at  All proceeds will go to the Fire Fighters Association to support their initiatives.



Does Parental Participation in Schools Help Kids?

By Ilsa Setziol 08/01/2014

On a balmy Friday morning in June, fifth-graders at Marengo Elementary dance around maypoles festooned with a rainbow of ribbons. The South Pasadena public-school campus looks beautiful — there are refurbished benches, a new garden and a cooler, green playground surface replacing the old cracked asphalt. Milling about are a couple of dozen dads in bright orange shirts and caps, who have arranged their work schedules so they can be here at the spring dance event. The shirts identify the dads as DUDES, members of South Pasadena’s Dads Uniting Dads in Education and Service. They take special pride in the campus improvements, because they made them happen. Co-founder Ed Donnelly says the group focuses on “creating a great environment for the kids” and “setting a good example by being involved.”

Since its founding two years ago, DUDES has undertaken several campus improvement projects and special events in South Pasadena’s elementary schools. There are now 130 dads at the ready with tools, paint, recording equipment and the willingness to M.C. or be dunked and doused — you name it. Educators say this kind of parental involvement in schools is important, perhaps essential, in this era of limited school funding. Some schools even rely on parents to teach curriculum casualties of budget cuts, such as art and music.

A recent study, however, questions the merits of all this parental effort. Sociologists Keith Robinson at the University of Texas, Austin, and Angel L. Harris of Duke University evaluated 63 different forms of parental involvement — volunteering in the classroom, contacting the school about a child’s behavior, helping decide on an older kid’s classes, etc. — and concluded that most did not improve student achievement. Help with homework? Not only not helpful, it could backfire, according to the researchers.

Educators, naturally, are skeptical.

“I want my child’s teacher to see me as a partner in the education,” says Pasadena parent Hilda Ramirez Horvath, “because there are things I can do at home to support what’s going on in the classroom.” In addition to being a mom, Horvath works as a parental engagement coordinator for Pasadena Unified School District. Horvath and two community liaisons set up parent workshops and activities, facilitate parent-school dialogue and help parents navigate the school system. She points to a PUSD parent leadership class called Project to Inspire as especially useful for recent immigrants. “We had parents who didn’t know much about school beyond you have to get [the kids] there,” she explains. Among other things, parents were encouraged to question teachers and staff. “In fact, we expect it — we want it,” she adds.

Parents who’ve participated in these programs have in turn mentored other parents. Horvath says parental involvement on campus often becomes a springboard to broader participation, including strategic planning at the district level and political action on education issues. And next year, PUSD will focus on training teachers — improving their skills in working with parents and having faculty (in lieu of consultants) lead parent workshops.

American educators began encouraging parental involvement in the 1960s, according to Dr. Angela Hasan of USC’s Rossier School of Education’s Teacher Education Program. “In President Johnson’s era, parents were asked to come into schools because [schools serving low-income students] were so horrible [they] weren’t meeting the needs of those children.”

Both President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s Race to the Top promote parental involvement as one solution for the achievement gap between affluent white kids and children of lower socioeconomic status. Robinson and Harris say their study puts the lie to the idea that kids of color would do better if their parents were more involved. “Our research shows that these parents tried to help their children in school just as much as the parents [of white and high-performing Asian kids],” they wrote in an April 12 New York Times opinion piece.

“You hear this grossly negligent stereotype that low-socioeconomic-status parents don’t care about their kids’ [education],” says Margo Pensavalle, Ph.D., who teaches diversity in the Rossier School’s master’s program. “That has never been my experience.” The main problem, as she sees it, is that schools and classroom materials still “mimic a white-middle-class experience,” and too often “teachers fail to teach in ways the kids can relate to.”

But Pensavalle says the study’s methodology couldn’t parse the complexity of the parental engagement issue. (The study compared the test scores and grades of kids whose parents reported being very involved with those whose parents said they were less involved.) “Whether parental help extends kids’ learning is a very difficult thing to measure,” she says. “There are loads of kids whose parents are involved and they do well,” she observes. But there are also “loads of kids who do really well and we might not consider their parents [to be] involved, but we don’t [really] know what they do at home.” For instance, these parents might be highly effective at boosting their kids’ confidence, or just be great role models. “The best predictor of when your kid will read,” says clinical psychologist Linda Bortell, “or what attitude your kid will have when reading, is seeing their parent read.”

The involvement study also didn’t factor in tutors, and it couldn’t measure intangibles such as creativity.

Photographer Darcy Hemley of Eagle Rock is one of several parent volunteers who teach art at Odyssey Charter School in Altadena. She pitches in because she believes “it’s necessary and nice for kids to get some art on a weekly basis.” She also sees her involvement as providing emotional support for her 8-year-old daughter.

And DUDES co-founder Mark Deetjen says his members aren’t just building benches — they’re cobbling together social cohesion in a school district that is ethnically and economically diverse. “You give a sense of community to the kids,” he says, “so instead of having all the cliques, they see the dads all together.”

According to USC’s Pensavalle, parents can also help teachers improve their cultural awareness and sensitivity. “We know that when kids can relate culturally to classrooms, they do better,” she says.

Having parents on campus also keeps schools accountable, says USC’s Hasan: “Parents need to be the audience; they’re the eyes that assess the school.” At a minimum, they can ensure the bathrooms are clean.

What’s more, parental involvement likely benefits all kids at a school, even if it can’t be shown to advance the academic achievement of a particular child. “I think if we raise the water,” says Horvath, “it lifts all boats.”

Flintridge Preparatory School in La Cañada Flintridge, a prestigious private middle and high school, brims with capable kids. Co-Dean of Faculty Sarah Cooper says she hasn’t noticed a correlation between the highest achievers and any obvious, hands-on involvement of their parents.

Parental engagement in schools typically drops off in middle school. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Cooper. “We really see [it] as a transition from elementary school, where parents tend to check a lot of homework,” she says, “to a very independent way of learning.” Teens need to try work out their school issues on their own, if they can, she adds. “It develops, we think, resilience.”

This need to develop independence might explain why Robinson and Harris found that older children who received more frequent parental help with homework fared worse academically than those whose parents said they provide little to no assistance. Robinson posits that parents may not remember or understand the homework material themselves. Let’s also consider that kids with learning differences may need parental support to keep up.

Regardless, the mountains of homework most schools assign these days tempts some parents to swoop in to get it done. (Many educators question the value of all this homework, yet the problem persists.)

Hasan advises parents to pay attention to the quality and difficulty of what’s been assigned. “If you give homework that they have not mastered, you do more harm than good,” she says. Rather than fearing punishment, says Pensavalle, kids should be able to tell teachers, “‘I didn’t finish my homework, because I didn’t really understand it.’”

So where does this leave concerned parents? Robinson and Harris did point to a few things they think generally work: requesting a specific teacher (though most schools frown on this), reading to young children, discussing the school day with your child and expecting him or her to go to college. They say that, rather than give a “blanket message” about appropriate involvement, schools should help parents find “creative ways to communicate the value of schooling.”

And when they do that, they should be sensitive and alert to the needs of individual children. Parental expectations for some kids may be too low, for others, too high. Bortell, who counsels kids in her South Pasadena office, says some affluent parents are putting the screws on their kids over academics. She advises promoting a love of learning, “which is different from a love of performance and grades.”

Still, Robinson and Harris aren’t telling parents to put down the paintbrushes and tune out at homework time. In an interview with Larry Mantle on KPCC-FM, Robinson said educators should instead ask, “How do we make parents more effective?”

It’s a question some have already embraced. In one project, Hasan and colleagues worked with parents in South Gate, Lynwood and Compton. After a year, the parents reported back on the skills or advice that helped most. Number one? Getting comfortable questioning their children. “It’s not about you having to know what geometry is,” she says. “It’s about asking and asking and the student having to tell you what it’s about.”

Cooper, who teaches history, encourages middle school parents to foster curiosity about school subjects. “I love hearing, ‘I talked with my parents about affirmative action,’” she says, “or ‘I saw this article about Ukraine and we had a discussion about it.’”

So busy parents should take heart: Some true interest, some thoughtful time together, could be as effective (or more) than a more hands-on approach. Just make sure someone is there to set up the carnival, paint the benches, drive kids on the field trip….


D.U.D.E.S. Making a Difference

By Ellen Byron

Scan the crowd of volunteers manning a school event, and chances are you’ll see mostly moms, with a few uncomfortable looking dads. But not in South Pasadena. Thanks to a grassroots organization called D.U.D.E.S. – Dads Uniting Dads in Education & Service – fathers in South Pasadena show up in full force when a cry goes out for parental help.

D.U.D.E.S. is the brainchild of Jeff Kirschenbaum, a dad at Marengo Elementary School. “He was looking for a way that the fathers at our school could get more involved,” explains Ed Donnelly, president of D.U.D.E.S. “The six of us who founded the group bought in immediately.”

D.U.D.E.S. has grown to a volunteer pool of more than 130 by putting a male spin on tasks. They use community builders such as “Sochi (think Olympic games) in South Pasadena” to create a bond that helps grow their base. “We had video games set up so we could have a little winter sport competition,” says Donnelly. “I may have known a dozen of the guys beforehand, but now I know 50 or 60 of them, and when there’s a call at school to do something like clean up the kindergarten playground, we have a network of people we can reach out to.”

D.U.D.E.S. also sponsors fundraisers that appeal to the fellows, including a poker tournament and a goofy all-day sporting event called “The Camden Classic” on a green parkway area on Camden Avenue. The nonprofit even steps up to run events like Marengo Elementary’s “Field Day.” “We had a giant inflatable obstacle course instead of just some orange cones set out in the back field,” says Donnelly. “We brought in a dunk tank that the principal, teachers, and some of the dads sat in. The kids loved that. We said, ‘The D.U.D.E.S. are going to fund whatever we need to provide for today, but we’re also going to staff it.’ And about 50 guys took the day off work and ran the thing.”

Not all D.U.D.E.S. events are sports-oriented; the group also sponsored a performance by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro for Marengo’s fifth grade students.

The organization has chapters in all South Pasadena elementary schools and will expand to middle schools in the fall. Goals include establishing a free after-school course in web coding for grades 3-5, and providing new percussion instruments for the city’s elementary schools. But their biggest goal, says Donnelly, “is to create an organization that’s sustainable. We want to make sure that as new waves of students and their parents come through, they understand what D.U.D.E.S. is and keep it going for decades.”

Dads Uniting Dads in Education might look like goofy fun, but it’s a serious way for fathers to get involved in schools. PHOTO COURTESY D.U.D.E.S.