parents as allies

Parents as Allies: New Castle’s schools are connecting with families in creative and caring ways

Photos courtesy of Parents as Allies/New Castle School District.

Schools do a lot of communicating, from stuffing flyers into backpacks and emailing parents to posting a steady stream of material on platforms like Google Classroom. But does all that communication really achieve its goal?

New Castle’s assistant to the superintendent, Tabitha Marino, asked that question as her district began participating in the Parents as Allies project in 2021: Even if a school district is trying to communicate well, Marino says, it can’t assume that the one-way communication is reaching everyone – and being understood.

And if you aren’t communicating in a way that truly reaches your stakeholders, she says, they may not hear you. They may not know how they can get involved. And if you don’t give them a powerful way to respond, you won’t really know what they’re thinking.

The Parents as Allies project is designed to tackle this challenge. Using the principles of design thinking – including “empathy interviews” and creative hacks that require minimal funding – the project is helping schools and parents throughout the Pittsburgh region communicate and connect with each other in new ways.

In her district, Marino credits those empathy interviews with helping her team discover a missing connection between parents and the schools.

“We found in our interviews that if your child is involved in athletics, you seemed to know what was going on and you had a positive outlook on our schools,” she says. “If we only went to the parents that had kids in athletics, we were just going to get that pocket of answers. So we were purposeful to make sure that we reached out to all different parents – different backgrounds, new transient students, our ELL (English language learners) population – and try to gather all the feedback.”

The things they learned and the ways they’ve built family/school engagement, especially with families who are new to learning English, have turned New Castle into a model for other districts in southwestern Pennsylvania.

parents as allies
Families celebrated at a special bilingual screening of the “Mario Brothers” movie.


In their first year as PAA participants, members of the New Castle team focused on communication with all parents. They put effort into social media posting to get parents engaged and keep them connected. Parents who don’t know what’s happening at school can’t even consider attending, Marino points out.

They were also strategic about partnering with parents who had a voice in the community and were willing to spread the word about school events and programs. With those folks on board, and a strong social media presence, New Castle began reaching a growing group of families.

In their second year, they gave special attention to the families of their English language learners. For kids in kindergarten through second grade, the school designed animated, digital “flip books” to show parents what their kids liked about school. The kids proudly shared these flip books at a school event, where parents could discover what their kids were learning and enjoying.

One key: The school had translators at the event to help families fully participate.

That led to a school celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which connected parents to the school and connected kids to one another. “By bringing these families together through their students,” Marino says, “we can build relationships and friendships. We want our students to branch out and become friends with all students to feel a sense of belonging.”

The impact was visible that night: Kids were smiling and everyone got involved. The school’s basketball team members, who had volunteered to help run the event, ended up dancing with the families. At a photo booth, families could text themselves a family photo with the caption “2022 Spanish Heritage celebration,” creating a  lasting reminder of this positive experience at school.

“One of the things we learned was our parents DO want to come into the school,” Marino says. “Our teachers want to be involved, too. Some brought their families and the athletic teams that they coach. Everybody took part.”

Another key: Parents appreciated that the school had worked with a Latino community liaison to plan the event and used local small businesses to cater the event.

Word of mouth soon spread: A group of parents asked if a similar celebration could be held for Black History Month, so the high school hosted that event.

Next came an even bigger event for ELL families: The kid-friendly “Super Mario Bros.” movie was coming out and a local movie theater had asked Universal if it was possible to show the movie with Spanish subtitles. The school sent bilingual invitations to families for a special movie night, where kids and their parents could see the movie with teachers. They also surveyed the families who attended, asking how they enjoyed the event and what else they might want the school to do.

Over time, these individual events have begun building a sense of community that makes families feel welcome inside their children’s school – and helps them feel safe asking questions and building relationships with teachers and administrators. Teachers at New Castle are also beginning to look for ways to invite parents into classrooms more often.

The work is ongoing, and Marino sees more progress on the horizon. In a recent meeting with Latino community leaders, she was told they see New Castle as a model for what other school districts can do.


  • Ask for feedback and truly listen. Get to know your audience, then plan something that takes into consideration their likes, values and experiences.
  • Don’t be afraid to start somewhere, even if it’s a small step. Small things matter when it comes to building a positive relationship and trust with the families.
  • This work helps teachers as well as parents. As teachers begin seeing kids as individuals and build personal connections with their families, that creates opportunities to make lessons even more impactful.
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.