Michael O'Neal

Photograph by Bunny Ware
  • Affiliation
    International Paper
  • Title
    Maintenance Electrician
  • Age
  • Location
    Savannah, Georgia

Location: Savannah, Ga.   In 1999, many parents in Savannah were dissatisfied with the public school system, and the relationship between community parents and the district was fraying. After speaking with parents around the community, O’Neal, a father of four children and a maintenance electrician with International Paper (No. 114), realized that many of them just wanted to learn to be the best parents they could be. O’Neal’s training as an electrician gave him the tools to analyze and solve problems at work. “But as a parent,” he says, “I hadn’t had any training.”   That year, he launched Parent University out of his living room, developing the curriculum through crowdsourcing: asking parents in his community what they wanted to know. About three or four Saturdays each year, O’Neal has held Parent University events in Savannah offering 20-30 primers—on topics like how to help children with homework and how to interact with the school district—per day to participants. The first event attracted hundreds of parents. All are staged like a town fair, with raffles, food vendors and activities for the kids—and classes are now taught mostly by expert volunteers: college professors, high school teachers, and even the occasional lawyer for sessions like “Know your housing rights.”   So successful was the endeavor that in 2012, Parent University merged with a philanthropic initiative called the Savannah Early Childhood Foundation, which teaches classes for parents with children age 0-5, to create the Early Learning College. Last year, the organization hosted four Parent University sessions and 12 Early Learning Colleges, which offer more specialized classes for parents of infants. “The most important thing is making the model engaging and making the environment feel safe and non-judgmental,” says O’Neal. “Parents don’t feel like they’re being talked down to, and they feel like they’re valued.” Since January, International Paper has awarded O’Neal a paid sabbatical so that he can scale up the program even further.