William Lathrop’s parents weren’t involved in his education. When he started playing hooky, ditching class as soon as his teacher marked him in homeroom, he didn’t hear about it. “I did what I wanted to,” he recalled. “I had Fs.” Soon, he stopped going altogether, and it took a three-month stint in jail for him to realize he needed to get his GED.
Now, as a stay-at-home dad with a son and two daughters, Lathrop walks his daughters to class every morning, makes sure they finish their homework, and communicates the importance of schooling.
“I don’t want my kids to go through what I did,” Lathrop explained. “It’s not whether the school wants me there or not. It’s about me being involved in their education.”
Along with DeShanin Coleman, the father of a kindergartner with special needs, Lathrop is one of the first recipients of Lincoln-Bassett School’s new Parent of the Month award. In a drive to engage more parents, the school is recognizing the moms and dads who get involved in their kids’ education. The first awards were given in a ceremony two days before Christmas break.
But unexpectedly for an award about engagement, the honorees are not always the ones who logged the most volunteer hours. Instead, in the last two months, the certificate has gone to two dads, largely for being a visible presence at Lincoln-Bassett, a place where guys aren’t usually as involved.
Keith Young, the school’s parent engagement director, said he’d chosen to recognize the two guys because their involvement felt “real,” not like role models on television. Students might hear from someone wearing a suit and a bow-tie, he said, but the ones who connected with the elementary-school students were relatable guys like Lathrop and Coleman, two single dads who’d turned their lives around. They were men who’d do anything for their kids, despite facing incarceration, evictions and divorce, and the kids could sense that, Young said.
Lathrop has been raising his 14-year-old son, a student at Barnard, as well as 9-year-old and 5-year-old daughters, both at Lincoln-Bassett, alone since last January. That’s when his wife left him after an 11-year marriage. He quit his job making sandwiches at People’s Choice to take care of his kids.
“I’d like to be working,” he said, “but I don’t have anybody to deal with my kids.”
With his extra time, he’s gotten involved in the PTO, helping to put on fundraisers like a recent coat drive and events like Daddy’s Night Out. He chaperones on field trips and occasionally stops by the lunchroom.
“I wish I could be here all the time. I really do,” he said.
Through his involvement, Lathrop’s hoping to get a job in the school kitchen one day. And he hopes his daughters can get a scholarship through New Haven Promise to go to college.
“Everybody should be involved in their kid’s education. You got some parents that just don’t care. They send their kids off to school for however many hours a day, and even when they come home, they still don’t participate in their life,” Lathrop said. “That’s kind of hard for me. My advice to parents that want to get involved is to go to the front office, try to find a counselor and get information. Just ask questions.”
That’s exactly what Coleman did when his five-year-old son, who’s been diagnosed as hyperactive, started at Lincoln Bassett. He too has been raising his kid as an only dad. His wife walked out one day, saying, “By the way, he’s not yours.”
“It didn’t matter to me, because I was taking care of him from the day he was born,” Coleman said. “I just stepped up and did what I had to do.”
But that doesn’t mean raising his son alone has been easy, he stresses. He worked two jobs, as a dishwasher at Yale’s Graduate Club and a cook at Burger King. He wasn’t eligible for a promotion at the fast-food chain because of his record. He’d used the Alford Doctrine, by which he denied his involvement while taking a plea, but that didn’t show up next to his felony. “I was young, of course, and I wanted freedom,” he said of that teenage mistake. “But it wasn’t actually freedom, because once you’re out, you can’t really get jobs.” To make more time for his son, he recently quit after a decade at Burger King.
Coleman also got evicted from his apartment, after he found out that the woman he’d been subletting from hadn’t paid the landlord for six months. An explanation to the judge didn’t work, and a court marshal put all his belongings out on the curb.
He’d long been involved with kids, taking out his five nephews on excursions to East Rock “because I didn’t want them standing out there watching the drug dealers,” he explained. But Coleman said he felt “awkward” and “out of place” when he first showed up. For one, he was one of the only active dads, when so many of the other parents he ran into were moms. And his son could cause disturbances in class.
“It gets hard. He has a low attention span, and I just have to keep him focused,” he said. “When I’m around, he straightens up. He’s different now. He done came a long way. Before he wouldn’t really sit, and he hit and all that other stuff. Now, he calms down, and I work with him on his education.”
Getting involved at the school has helped both Lathrop and Coleman. Young has directed them toward support services, like food banks, and helped them write a resume to apply for jobs.
Beyond holding up these two parents as examples, the awards also mean a great deal to their recipients. Lathrop said the award is one of the first times he understood he wasn’t like his own parents.
“It’s helped me to know that I’m a good father, that I’m doing the things I’m supposed to, providing the things that my kids need and making sure that they have a stable home,” he said. “I’m doing the best that I can, and a lot of people see me. That makes me feel good.”
Coleman agreed. “Before I started doing this, I felt bad on myself always, hearing at jobs, ‘You’re a felon so we can’t hire you.’ All that kind of put me down,” he said. “When I started doing this with my son, I heard, ‘Oh, you’re doing a good job. I always see you with the kids.’ It lifted my spirit up. I was like, OK, it’s going to get better.”