At Parent University, a community collaborative in Savannah, Georgia, parents get the opportunity to be both teachers and students, helping one another navigate tough topics like how to prepare your children for standardizing testing or develop their reading skills.
America’s Promise Alliance was able to hear from founder Michael O’Neal this month to learn more about his work in Savannah and what keeps him passionate about serving the community.
Q: What work in your community are you most excited about right now?
A: There are several aspects of our work that are very exciting right now. After 17 years of working with various families in Savannah GA we are noting the development of a cadre of our Parent University and Early Learning College participants who can help create what is now a group of parent leaders to do the next level of community building work.
Equally exciting is the fact that various kinds of community resources are rallying to help keep these efforts going. An effort to help parents help their children so many years ago has succeeded in more than a few cases. But on another level we are creating an environment where people from all the neighborhoods where we live can contribute to a supportive environment for children and families to reach their potential.
Q: What successes in your community are you most proud of?
A: Our biggest measure of success is that the parents we work with feel a true sense of ownership of the programs. We are able to encourage this sense of ownership by consistently seeking their input before we put on activities and then reflecting with them after our activities. As a result, there is a collective feeling that we are all doing something good together. This dynamic has proven to have a self-sustaining effect over the years because participants validate our claims that parents can be partners in a continuous learning culture.
Q: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
A: One of our most important learnings is that there has to be a commitment to relationship building when working with families. To truly be helpful to the families of our school-age children there has to be a perception that we have become extended family with them. We have learned that we can't see those we serve simply as clients but as full
Q: What are the top three words that describe the biggest challenges to your work?
A: "Unwillingness to change" are the words that pose the biggest challenge to our success.
Michael O’Neal is a founder of Parent University and now serves as the Executive Director of Community United Services Inc., which is the entity that manages the Parent University program. Mr. O’Neal has been the chief steward of this grassroots community based program since its founding in 1999. Currently Michael facilitates Parent University and its new component “Early Learning College” program for the parents of children birth to five years old. Learn more about Parent University and Early Learning College here.