parents as allies

Parents as Allies: At Avonworth, new and established families band together to create a community

Avonworth School District isn’t a big place. But within a space of just 11 square miles, it brings together students from the boroughs of Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights and Emsworth, along with Ohio and Killbuck Townships – and, increasingly, students from around the world. 

How can a school community help everyone feel welcome and appreciated – those who have been in the Pittsburgh area for generations and those who have just arrived in the United States? 

When Avonworth joined the Parents as Allies (PAA)  family-school engagement project, that question was top of mind. 

PAA is built on the research-backed idea that kids benefit when their families are genuinely engaged with their school. The Avonworth community has evolved rapidly in recent years, so the PAA team wanted to make sure all parents – including those newest to the community – could engage with the schools as partners. 

They didn’t want merely to offer parents and caregivers a list of ways to volunteer, like donating cookies for a holiday party. But how do you create deeper, more substantive engagement? 

“We knew we needed to start being more intentional in how we recognize and honor our families,” says PAA team co-lead Scott Miller, who serves as principal at Avonworth Primary Center. 

“Our aspiration,” he says, “was to create opportunities for engagement in ways that are responsive to diverse language, cultural, socioeconomic and gender backgrounds.” 


The Avonworth team began by hosting a public event called a Great Learning Conversation to talk about the purpose of education. What did families want their kids to gain from their education at Avonworth — and what did teachers and administrators see as most important? 

“We soon learned that we all felt it was important to develop the whole child,” Miller says. The biggest priority was helping students understand themselves and develop social skills and a sense of their own values.

Next, they looked at how best to engage with families new to speaking English. The team dreamed up simple but powerful adjustments, like making kindergarten registration forms available in multiple languages.

Then, with mini-grant funding from Parents as Allies, the team began planning a larger event that celebrated local families. Inspired by Fred Rogers, they created “Hi Neighbor!” – an evening celebration in 2021 where local families were invited to share their cultural celebrations. 

Hi Neighbor
The ofrenda shared by the Del Campo family during Avonworth’s “Hi Neighbor!” event. Photo courtesy of Parents as Allies.

Parents and kids from the community learned about the Day of the Dead, Ramadan and Lunar New Year. Families designed materials and displays that taught about their culture, and teachers helped design activities and find stories to help everyone learn more about these holidays. 

The event, Miller says, was a success. Many families attended, and by the end of the evening kids and their parents were sharing ideas for additional celebrations they would like to learn about at the next event. 

Several more “Hi Neighbor!” events have been held at Avonworth since then, and the PAA team has created a “Family Ambassador” program. This project pairs new and not-so-new families to learn from each other and form friendships. New families gain a support system, while longtime Avonworth regulars renew their commitment to creating a culture of belonging. 

The work of family-school engagement continues at Avonworth, Miller says, and a “ripple effect” is happening throughout the community. From evening gatherings to daytime “coffee chats,” families and connecting with teachers and school administrators in new ways.  


  • Create a diverse team to tackle family-school engagement. And have a committee of diverse stakeholders to help support this work. 
  • Focus on quality, not quantity. Just a few purposely crafted, fun events can have real impact. And you don’t have to reach everyone in one night. Smaller, intimate gatherings can help people build relationships in ways that large events cannot. 
  • Use families as a teaching resource. Ask those in your community how they can help. Then, embrace the experience of learning together. 
Since 2021, Parents as Allies has helped more than two dozen school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania build engagement with families with support from the Grable Foundation. As the project enters its fourth year, we are sharing innovative hacks and fresh ideas from these districts to help families and schools in our region and around the world connect more deeply and support each other more fully. This story is one in a series chronicling these parent-school engagement discoveries. Stay tuned for more stories throughout the coming months.