Parents as Allies: Schools and families in Ambridge are connecting, thanks to honest talk and help with access
Ambridge Area Middle School Principal Ronnell Heard knew how much he cared about the kids who came to his school each day. He also knew he had teachers who cared — both about those kids and about the parents who were raising them.
But he began participating in the Parents as Allies project because he knew the school’s relationship with the community was complicated.
The goal of Parents as Allies (PAA) is to help schools and parents genuinely engage with one another, teaching them to use design thinking to creatively hack the barriers that can keep them apart. Teams made up of school staff and parents work closely together to figure out how best to improve parent-school engagement in their community.
In Ambridge, that work started in 2022 with an honest look at the current situation.
Heard knew that some parents hadn’t had a good public school experience when they were kids. So they didn’t feel welcome at back-to-school nights or parent-teacher conferences.
Some struggled to even get to the middle school building. Although the high school is in a walkable, downtown location, the middle school is located far out with little public transportation available. Some families don’t have cars. So kids get to school by bus each day, but nighttime events at the middle school are difficult for many families to reach.
That means parents don’t know their child’s teachers – which means that new experiences aren’t overwriting the dated perceptions they may have long carried about public school.
So he started by talking honestly with his co-lead on the PAA team, Nate Harmon. What is missing, he asked? What are the connections we need to make? Harmon would share who was missing from the community at the table.
It was clear: They needed to involve community members who hadn’t typically had a voice. They needed to let those people know the school was listening and wanted to work together on behalf of the kids of Ambridge.
WHAT DID THEY TRY?
Rather than dreaming up solutions in a vacuum, the Ambridge PAA team wanted to start by asking the community what could be done better. Even if it was tough to hear, they wanted honest answers. So since gathering people at the middle school wouldn’t be easy, they planned a Zoom meeting.
It was a chance for parents to share what they really wanted from the school, and a moment for the school staff to ask: How can we help your family and how can we work together?
Parents who logged in said they needed better communication. And they needed to know if the school was actually rooting for the community.
“We learned that the community does want to be involved but didn’t know how,” Heard says. And some people would come to school events if only they had transportation.
So the PAA team got creative. They knew that in Ambridge, a longtime high-school sports powerhouse, athletic events get a far bigger turnout than academic gatherings. And the annual football game between Ambridge and Aliquippa draws the biggest crowd of the year. What if the PAA team hosted a tailgate party at the game, where parents could get to know middle school teachers outside of an academic context?
The team hired a DJ and set up a space for dancing. They put out cornhole boards and invited a parent who owns a food truck.
Months later at a PAA gathering, Heard told teams from other school districts in the Pittsburgh region about the ways he watched parents and teachers connect as people: “It’s not the discipline conversations about what your kid’s not doing, what your kid needs to work on. It’s just a really comfortable space that involves food and a really good time.”
In the days after the event, parents began asking how they might get involved at school. Halloween was coming, so several parents donated supplies and decorations for a party and volunteered their time.
The challenge of actually getting people to the middle school still lingers. The PAA team hosted an event last spring that included a parents vs. students kickball tournament, lawn games and food. Some parents turned out, and those who attended said they had a great time. But the crowd could have been larger.
So the hacking continues: For future events, Heard says, they’ll offer a school bus to shuttle people from the high school to the middle school.
WHAT WOULD THEY TELL OTHER SCHOOLS?
- Meet with people. Don’t assume you know what they want from their school.
- Plan events “where people can just be people,” Heard says. Let teachers bring their own families and plan activities where people won’t be talking about grades or discipline.
- Work directly with community members who want to build engagement. “Nate was an amazing connector,” Heard says. “He wanted to be a part of the school and be a part of the positive message.”
- Consider offering professional development for teachers. Make sure they can learn best practices in family-school engagement. It’s something many teachers aren’t trained to do.