parents as allies

Parents as Allies: At Deer Lakes, open house is now a uniquely welcoming experience

Photos courtesy of Parents as Allies/Deer Lakes School District.

Life changes for kids when they transition from elementary to middle school. In many districts, kids from multiple elementary schools are brought together when they reach sixth grade. New faces and new experiences are everywhere as these newly minted middle schoolers begin navigating from class to class in busy hallways filled with older students.

Many schools make an effort to help kids with the transition to middle school. But what about their parents, who may not be sure how to get involved at their child’s school – or whether they’re even welcome?

“Historically, getting parents involved in middle school is hard,” says Dr. Samantha Abate, principal at Deer Lakes Middle School, just north of Pittsburgh.

That disconnect works both ways. Deer Lakes parent Christine Ashi, who has sons in middle school and high school, found that parents tend to get less communication from schools as their kids reach sixth grade and beyond.

Through the efforts of Abate, Ashi and others in their community, that situation has changed at Deer Lakes. Two years ago, the district began working with the Parents as Allies (PAA) family/school engagement project, which brings together school staff and parents to form collaborative teams that tackle challenges like these.

The Deer Lakes team reimagined the traditional open house at the start of the school year.

Instead of expecting parents to trudge from classroom to classroom, they hung up string lights and created a party that looked like a street fair. A local restaurant provided catering, a food truck served frozen desserts and small businesses from the community set up a shopping area.

There were also team-building activities run by teachers and kids. Some parents were apprehensive at first about joining in, but teachers encouraged and involved them.

“It was nice for the parents and kids to see their teacher in a different light,” Ashi says. And parents connected with other parents, while some kids made new friends.

After years of declining attendance, suddenly the open house was a hot topic. In years since, attendance has been “through the roof,” Abate says. “We’re never going to do a traditional open house again.”

Teachers were ready to chat with parents — and do team-building exercises with them — at the open house.

The PAA team also hosted Unified Arts day where students did activities in classes like art, computer science, foreign language and technology. They took photos of the students doing these activities and shared them with parents to give them a glimpse of the school day in action.

They also held conversations and focus groups with parents to better understand the needs of students at the various middle school grade levels. Beyond giving the school valuable insight, those conversations had a deeper impact: They let parents know the school cares and is listening.


  • Change isn’t easy. “You need a good group of people to work together and go up against the obstacles,” Ashi says, and it helps if they have a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.
  • Work with your teachers and administrators. It will be a new experience for staff to buy into new ways of interacting with parents.
  • Start small, Abate says. You may want to take big, bold steps to build real parent/school engagement. But small, thoughtful steps can have a powerful impact.
Since early 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.