State PTA chief's Howard roots

Mary Jo Neil became involved in the organization at West Friendship Elementary in 1997

September 17, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Mary Jo Neil got involved in the PTA in 1997, when she became president of the organization at West Friendship Elementary School, where two of her three children were pupils. She learned there was an opening for president, and she went for it, she said, never bothering to start at a lower level and move up through the ranks.

Now, Neil is president of the Maryland PTA, a statewide post that puts her at the helm of an organization with 214,000 members, one that works to improve the conditions of schools throughout the state.

Though the position is voluntary, she estimates that she works about 25 hours a week and travels frequently to meetings and conferences. Neil was president of the West Friendship PTA for a two-year term. During that time, she also was executive vice president at the council level, serving on a PTA board that represents Howard County.

She became council president for a term, then went to the state level, serving as first vice president. In November last year, she became president of the state PTA.

"It's about advocacy," Neil said, sitting in the living room of her West Friendship home. Stacks of papers and pamphlets are placed neatly in her dining room, where she does much of her PTA work. "It's about advocating for your school needs."

At the local PTA level, that can mean getting new computers in the classroom or upgrading a playground. At the state level, the goals are more about setting policies that support public education.

Linda Spano, former PTA president at Thunder Hill, is a volunteer at the state level. She said Neil is an inspiration and mentor.

"She's been very willing to be a mentor to me personally and kind of show me all the great things that are going on behind the scenes that normally you wouldn't know about," Spano said.

"She's very good at bringing in key people," Spano continued. "It's really a talent to nurture volunteers because you can get really stuck and not know what your place is."

For Neil, who has three children in Howard County schools, parental involvement is a key component of who she is as a mother and as a PTA president. And it is also the key to making schools better, she said.

Her goal as state PTA president is to increase membership to 250,000, she said.

"We're just trying to get people to see the value of membership." The more people who join the PTA, the more powerful the organization's voice, she said.

Before she was PTA president at West Friendship, she was an involved parent, starting when her children attended the Stevens Forest Co-op Nursery, a preschool that required the help of parents. Neil never questioned that she would be an involved parent because her mother was one, she said.

"My mom was always there for me," she said.

Neil juggles the state PTA job with raising her children, Joanne, a senior at Glenelg High, Zachary, a Glenelg freshman, and Matthew, a fourth-grader at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary.

Her office staff in Glen Burnie includes two full-timers and one part-timer, she said. She and other PTA members go to Annapolis during the legislative session to testify about school-related bills.

Part of her role is working to implement the recommendations of a report issued by Maryland's Parent Advisory Council (M-PAC), a statewide panel of 120 parents and other school advocates appointed in 2003 by state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick.

The 2005 report, called "A Shared Responsibility," has 24 recommendations for increasing family and community involvement in schools.

One recommendation is to support a bill that would have required at least two parents to sit on the 12-member Maryland State Board of Education.

That bill did not make it past committee, Neil said, but in August, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed Tonya Miles of Prince George's County - a parent with school-age children - to the board.

Another recommendation calls for "using varied methods, media, resources and languages" to make sure parents get the information they needs about what is going on in the schools.

Not all parents have access to computers, Neil said. So she has worked to create an information sheet related to high school assessments. The sheet, which notes that students must pass the assessment tests to graduate from high school, contains a phone number, Web site and other resources for more information. These have been printed and distributed to schools around the state, Neil said.

Traveling to other schools throughout the state has been a wake-up call for Neil. The problems facing schools in the city are different from the ones in Howard County, she said.

"All parent input is so valuable," she said. "And it ranges."

She added: "It's very interesting to hear and to learn about all the different perspectives."

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