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PTA Dad: 'I was missing out'

Mike Ryan had a strategy when he presided over his first elementary school PTA meeting -- a group usually considered "moms turf."

He let the mothers in the room give him direction, advice and input. And then, after he listened, he pushed his ideas, encouraging the moms to help brainstorm ways to get more dads involved.

"I knew if I was going to get anywhere, I had to recognize first that there was a lot of wisdom in the room," Ryan says.

While Ryan is one of few PTA presidents who are dads, he exemplifies a growing trend. A South Florida lawyer, Ryan balances court cases and PTA leadership and advocates that families and employers both benefit when men participate in schools. As Father's Day nears, Ryan is making even bigger goals to get more dads involved in the upcoming school year.

Interesting enough, Ryan's presidency at Sawgrass Elementary in Sunrise coincides with the first time in U.S. history that the parent in charge of the National Parent Teacher Organization, a 5.5 million-member organization, is a dad, Charles J. Saylors.

Men make up just 10 percent of the membership of the national PTA and while that number seems small, it is larger than it has ever been. Statistics show children do better in school and life when their fathers are involved. At Sawgrass, Ryan started a program called BUDS (brothers, uncles and dads) to draw male role models to school activities.

Ryan says he's learned the biggest obstacles to male involvement are the two things that held him back from volunteering for years -- a perception of the PTA as a place only for overenthusiastic moms and a lack of flexibility at work. "What employers should know is that parents who have the chance to volunteer at their child's school are happier, more motivated and appreciative."

Ryan bolts from school meetings to his law offices at Krupnick Campbell Malone Buser Slama Hancock Liberman & McKee in Fort Lauderdale. From there he often heads to sports fields, where he's a coach for son's and daughter's soccer, baseball and football teams.

Ryan says technology makes it all possible. He uses his BlackBerry to zip an e-mail to a parent from his law office or respond to a client from his kid's school. Recently he has taken his involvement in education to a new level as chairman of the Broward County Council of PTA's countywide School Resource Officer Committee and chairman of the Education Advisory Board for Sunrise.

Ryan remembers the exact moment he realized his work/life balance was out of whack. He was sitting in an airport, again, and his wife was telling him how well his son had played in his baseball game. "It hit me that I was traveling so much, I was missing out. I saw the years slipping away, and I felt like I couldn't do it anymore."

He asked his law partners to take him off the lucrative pharmaceutical and product liability lawsuits that had him jetting across the country. Ryan's request was granted.

Skip Campbell, managing partner and the lawyer who now does the travel Ryan once did, says: "We make accommodations for some of the women staff in the office, why wouldn't we make accommodations for a great lawyer?" Ryan says support came from his law partners with older kids who "knew how fast the years go by." As a result of the accommodation, Ryan says, "It's made me incredibly loyal."

Ryan now roams the hallways of Sawgrass Elementary, high five-ing students who know him as a coach, parent or as a PTA dad.

And now he is the go-to lawyer for more than 100 homeowners in Florida courts who allege defective Chinese drywall is destroying their homes. The cases require some travel around the state, but most nights Ryan is home for dinner with his wife, Shirlie, and two kids, Conor, 11, and Molly, 9.

"I understand the challenges of balancing it all," Ryan says. "I just hope more businesses encourage parents to have the opportunity to spend a few hours a month at their children's schools. I've gotten far more than I can give back."