Authors: By KEN GORDON
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- At one time, Robert Ragland equated membership in a Parent Teacher Association with "baking cookies and cakes."
Then his son, Robert Jr., started the first grade at West Franklin Elementary School.
The dad followed his wife's lead by joining the PTA at the Hilltop school - and soon discovered how off-base his view had been.
"They said, if we helped fix up the playground, they would feed us," a chuckling Ragland recalled. "And we're men - which means we like tools and we love to eat."
Sixteen years later - after stints as treasurer, vice president and president of various PTAs - Ragland serves as chairman of the Ohio PTA's Men Organized To Raise Engagement committee.
"I just liked being a hands-on dad and going in and doing what needed to be done," said Ragland, who works in the finance department at the Defense Supply Center Columbus.
The committee was founded in 2008 by the National PTA, a 5.5 million-member organization based in Arlington, Va., that has worked for years to try to increase male involvement in children's education - and, specifically, to get more men involved in PTA leadership roles.
"There is a lot of research that shows that children do better in school when both parents are involved - not just Mom," said James Martinez, spokesman for the National PTA.
"And anytime an organization can get a whole new demographic to be part of it, it adds energy and reinvigorates it."
In 2001, Martinez said, men headed no more than 3 percent of PTAs nationwide. By 2009, the number had reached 25?percent, he said.
Several factors, Martinez said, probably play into the shift - including that more women are primary breadwinners, compelling couples to share parenting duties more equitably, and economic challenges.
"There may be more men at home looking for something to do," he said.
In central Ohio, some school officials have noticed an uptick in male involvement in recent years.
"It's starting to catch on a little more," said April Knight, principal at Avondale Elementary School in the Franklinton neighborhood, where two fathers are active in the PTA and serve as crossing guards.
At Avalon Elementary on the North Side, Vaughn Cook has been involved with the PTA for about eight years, with this year marking his first as president.
"I think the more that men see other men in my position do what I'm doing, the less they will be intimidated (to join PTAs)," said Cook, an insurance agent and youth pastor who has two sons at Avalon: Joshua, 10, and Jacob, 9. "It's like, when you think of a nurse, what's the first gender you think of? The more you see male nurses, the more acceptable it becomes.
"It's the same thing with this."
Sandee Donald, principal at Avalon, agrees that male PTA leadership breaks down stereotypes.
"Anytime we invite fathers to an event, I have dads ask me, `Am I going to be the only one (man) there?'" Donald said. "Having a male leader of the group helps remove barriers."
Like Cook, Mike Kazee is in his inaugural year as a PTA president - at Harmon Elementary on the South Side of Columbus.
Part of his role, he said, is to encourage more men to become involved.
"I grew up in Hilliard, where there was a lot more parental involvement," Kazee said. "At Harmon, there are a lot of single parents, and there were meetings in past years where I don't remember seeing a single male - except the principal.
"Now, I see more men, but usually they're coming with their wives, not on their own. So my job is to say: `You're a dude. Get involved. It's not a girlie thing.'"
Kazee and others see broader benefits, too, to greater male participation and visibility in schools.
"Having a father involved adds value simply because some kids don't have fathers in their lives," said Lolita Augenstein, president of the Columbus Council of PTAs, which represents Columbus schools.
"Back in the day, fathers would go to work and not get involved in schools at all.
"So when fathers walk in (to a school) - I'm not saying kids don't get excited when moms come in, because they do - there's a different type of excitement."
Yet not every male PTA president sees himself as an anomaly or a pioneer.
Steve Niehoff of the North Side has been involved in the PTA at Winterset Elementary since his daughter, Lanie, entered school six years ago. He served as treasurer before being elected president this year.
"I remember, growing up, my parents were always involved - and it's just the right thing to do," he said. "If my daughter's going to school, then I should be part of the school community."
Many other men, he said, get involved at Winterset.
"I don't stand out."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com