© 2022 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Local News

Parent University outreach growing in Pensacola

Michael O'Neal 1.jpg
Photo courtesy of Parent University Pensacola
Parent University Executive Director and Founder Michael O'Neal addresses parents attending a recent session in Pensacola.

Parent University has been up and running in Pensacola for the past year, with the next event set for Saturday, April 30 at Montclair Elementary School. The goal of the initiative, which launched more than 20 years ago in Savannah, Georgia, is to give parents the skills and resources they need for the success of their family and their children – at home and in school.

Parent U Ensley Registration.jpg
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Registration is underway at the recent Parent University Pensacola session at Ensley Elementary School.

About an hour before the scheduled start of the February event at Ensley Elementary School, the site is bustling with activity. Program providers are setting up, food and supplies are being brought in for participating parents and their children, and registration is underway.

“What you’re getting at Parent University is first you’re coming to an environment that you help create," said Michael O’Neal, executive director and founder of Parent University. "Parent University is parent-centric; it’s driven by the parents."

“Then, the things that you told us you wanted to learn, we’ve got on the agenda," she added. "I’m not telling people what they need — I’m giving people what they asked for. Once, you get here, you see things that you want to participate in and you go and engage them.”

Parents attending the Saturday morning sessions have a choice of selecting and attending two of eight or nine classes offered each time on topics they identified in the early going.

Such issues range from helping their kids with reading to development of job skills, financial management, and home ownership. The programs are geared to parents, but children are the ultimate beneficiaries.

Parent University Class.jpg
Inside a Parent University Pensacola class at Ensley Elementary School. The session was held Saturday, February 19, 2022.

“Let’s face it, regardless of what we do for the children in the time that we have them with the schools, they go home to the parents,” said O’Neal. “But, if the parent is engaged, then we can complement it, and what the child learned that day can be reinforced, not just verbally, but they can see it- that their parents are engaged in a continuous process of learning, too.”

Parent University is a holistic outreach effort, with O’Neal and his many community partners covering just about everything that a parent might want or need to learn. Additionally, they’re doing everything they can to encourage and make it easy to attend the monthly sessions.

“When parents walk in there, we’re gonna have breakfast ready,” he began. “We have a deluxe continental breakfast prepared. We also have free childcare, by qualified Head Start childcare folks and others in the community who come to help. We also have lunch for our parents. We also provide transportation, and we give away prizes.”

For example, on this day one lucky parent is going to win a laptop. Also, a pizza party was promised to the Ensley Elementary class with the highest attendance. Miss Simmons’ class won.

Michael O'Neal and Julian MacQueen.jpg
Photo courtesy of Parent University Pensacola
Michael O'Neal and Julian MacQueen at an early Parent University Pensacola event. MacQueen and his wife Kim, owners of Innisfree Hotels, teamed with O'Neal to bring the initiative to Pensacola.

“This is just another exciting opportunity for us to gather around this Parent University initiative,” said Dr. Lusharon Wiley, director of corporate culture for Innisfree Hotels, whose Pensacola-area owners had a role in bringing the initiative to the local community.

“Kim and Julian McQueen heard about this happening in Savannah, went to visit Parent University in Savannah, and were so impressed with what they saw, that we decided that we would like to be a branch here in Pensacola. So, we were the second opportunity that Michael O’Neal, who is the founder of this initiative, took a chance on us and it’s been going great guns ever since.”

With support from the Escambia County School District, there were a series of organizational and visioning meetings followed by the first official Parent University event in Pensacola in August of last year (2021).

The events or sessions, referred to as Family Fun Days, have been held at various local schools, including Pensacola High School (PHS), Lincoln Park, O.J. Semmes, and Dixon School of Arts & Sciences.

According to Wiley, parents are buying in.

“We have an environment that says to them, 'You matter; you are the most important part and you have to be involved in your child’s education," Wiley said.

Wiley and her Innisfree colleagues are invested in making Parent University Pensacola a success, helping to get the word out and serving as volunteers. On this day at Ensley, she and her colleague Rusty Branch have food duty, which includes manning the coffee station.

She notes that all is well now that Branch has delivered more coffee stirrers.

Parent University Crowd.jpg
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Parents gather in the cafeteria at Ensley Elementary School for the February session of Parent University Pensacola.

Executive Director Michael O’Neal credits the many volunteers and community resource partners. But, he believes much of their success is due to their extensive effort in reaching out to and giving some ownership to parents.

“We’ve come to realize you need to spend at least 50% of your energy on engaging the audience in a manner that they feel as though they have a contribution to make, not just something you want them to learn,” said O’Neal.

“So, we spend a great deal of time encouraging our parents who have attended to tell people about it and to bring them with them, and that way it grows from the grassroots up.”

O’Neal says it’s not uncommon to see as many as 200 to 400 people in attendance at their Parent University events.

“We’ve almost come to expect it, which I hope doesn’t make us jaded," he said. "But, we’ve actually come to expect several hundred people at every event.”

“We’ve seen 200 and 300 at Pensacola, routinely.”

The next Parent University Pensacola event will be held Saturday, April 30, at Montclair Elementary School. For more information, to register or donate, go online to the Parent University Pensacola website or visit the Parent University Pensacola Facebook page.