Mississippi woman named MDE Parent of the Year

Published 9:55 pm Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) announced Thursday the 2024 Mississippi Parent of the Year is Jessica Banahan McNeel, a mother of three with two students in the Pascagoula-Gautier School District (PGSD).

McNeel was nominated by the school district and is described as a humble, dedicated advocate of public education in the district and community. She consistently demonstrates a passion for fostering a positive and enriching environment for students and families. Because of McNeel’s collaborative spirit, she has impacted each school her children have attended and even invests in schools they are not currently attending. As a partner in the law firm Byran, Nelson, Schroeder, Castigiola, & Banahan, PLLC, she allocates time to invest in schools, community and children to make an attractive area for the next generation.

McNeel believes one of the most impactful ways to benefit her children, as well as other children in the community, is to be present, involved and continue to give back to the district. She wants her children to always understand that their parents support them and value community and the diverse people and opportunities within it.  McNeel’s goal is to raise children who are kind, open-minded, intelligent and have a desire to work hard in accomplishing their endeavors. She has witnessed countless individuals who have made significant contributions to the schools.  Appreciating these contributions helped foster her unwavering belief in the Pascagoula-Gautier School District, the community and Mississippi.

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Drawing inspiration from her parents, who advocate for public education and volunteerism, McNeel mirrored what she learned as a child. She has invested countless hours in various service-oriented activities and organizations serving as Parent Teacher Student Organization President for three years and representative for the Parent Advisory Board. McNeel chaired fundraisers, organized annual campus cleanups, chaperoned field trips and actively engaged in various school events such as Teacher Appreciation Week and Accelerated Reading parties.

Additionally, McNeel has annually served as a community interviewer in the legal sector for the You’re Hired!  mock interview program sponsored by the Jackson County Chamber and served as a member of the PGSD’s most recent Strategic Planning Committee. She is a founding member of Pascagoula Gautier Foundation for Educational Excellence (PGFEE), a non-profit dedicated to fostering connections between individuals, businesses and industries to the PGSD with the goal of supporting and promoting education within the community. For the past 12 years, she has chaired the Rotary Club of Pascagoula’s annual scholarship program, which awards approximately $40,000 to seniors from local high schools.

Research has repeatedly shown that parental involvement is a critical factor in determining the academic success of students. As part of the annual Parent of the Year program, MDE asks each district to select an outstanding parent who has made a significant impact on school improvement efforts in the school district.

The committee reviewed numerous applications submitted by school districts and selected a Parent of the Year finalist from each of the four congressional districts. From those four district winners, the 2024 Parent of the Year is determined.

Other Parent of the Year finalists for 2024 are as follows:

  • Congressional District 1 finalist is Leigh Ann Whitehead, who was nominated by the Tupelo School District for being an unconditionally supportive parent with a heart of gold who gives her time and resources. She has two children currently in the district.
  • Congressional District 2 finalist is Paula Morris, who was nominated by Natchez-Adams School District for her exceptional dedication and unwavering support in creating a nurturing and enriching environment for students, parents and faculty. She has two children, with one in the district.
  • Congressional District 3 finalist is Lakeitha Atkinson, who was nominated by the McComb School District for her outstanding contributions and being an amazing role model parent, who supports the school’s mission and vision, and advocates for students, teachers and parents. She has one child currently in the district.