parents as allies

Parents as Allies: Welcoming events and opportunities to connect at Charleroi schools 

Photos courtesy of Parents as Allies/Charleroi School District. 

Most schools don’t set out to communicate with parents only about difficult things. It’s not a deliberate strategy. But in communities throughout the U.S., academic struggles and behavioral issues are usually the topic of meetings between schools and parents.  

In the past, that’s how it often happened in the Charleroi School District. Aside from conversations about attendance issues and academic concerns, parents had few options to be positively involved in their children’s school lives and build relationships with their teachers. 

Charleroi, located about an hour south of Pittsburgh, is a place where nearly 60% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Their parents may be struggling to make ends meet, often working long or unpredictable hours. 

Mark Killinger, who serves as Charleroi’s principal for kindergarten through 2nd grade, knew these parents and their kids would benefit from a deeper, more positive connection with his school. But how to make that happen? 

He found one solution by participating in the Parents as Allies (PAA), a family-school engagement project funded by the Grable Foundation, which helps districts form teams led jointly by school staff and local parents. Together, Parents as Allies teams in each community build authentic communication and find ways to hack the challenge of really connecting.

Killinger and other members of his PAA team knew that some parents came to the elementary school’s annual open house event. But they were less likely to come to parent/teacher conferences to sit down with a teacher one on one. 

So the team focused on getting these parents more comfortable coming to the school, which could then lead to better attendance at parent/teacher conferences and better relationships. 

parents as allies
Kids and parents enjoy breakfast during the Parents as Allies “Donuts with Grownups” event at Charleroi


The school always holds an end-of-year luau. A small group of very involved parents normally helps out. In the spring of 2022, the PAA team encouraged a handful of people who don’t usually participate to be part of the planning and execution. They created T-shirts for the event and made sure everyone had one, so all felt involved. It was a great first step in making the luau – and, by extension, the school – as welcoming and appealing as possible.

It was also an eye-opening experience for the team. They’d worried that some of the parents wouldn’t be interested in helping out. Instead, they found that many were glad to be asked. 

“They wanted to be a part of what was going on,” says Killinger. 

The team also found that some parents had a negative public school experience themselves, so they were wary about interacting. That challenge presented an opportunity, Killinger says: “Are we going to repeat the cycle, or are we going to try to break the cycle?”

 After the successful luau, parents and other caregivers were invited to visit school on a weekday morning for “Donuts with Grownups.” At this casual event, held as the 2022-23 school year was beginning, they could have breakfast with their child’s teacher – getting to know teachers “on a human level,” Killinger says. 

Parents could also meet other parents, building relationships within the school community. Ideally, these positive relationships would be the starting point for — they hoped — better communication throughout the academic year. 

parents as allies
Grownups had their pick of lots of luscious donuts at the elementary school breakfast event.

Turnout was strong: Out of 118 first graders, caregivers for more than 75 students attended. The kids were excited to see their parents and caregivers welcomed as honored guests. The adults felt like they mattered and the teachers saw that the adults had made an effort to be there, which improved their morale. 

Through the fall and winter, more events were planned, including two Bingo Nights for parents of the school’s English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. The prizes were educational, including flash cards and books. Each small, casual event was a chance for further connections. 

Then, spring 2023, the PAA team went a step further: Killinger, a former band director with a background in the arts, has seen how arts education can  help kids “come out of their shell.” So with help from a new art teacher, the PAA team partnered with a local “paint and sip” business called “Off the Wall Arts” and invited families to create a painted canvas designed with a tree and all the family members’ names.

It helped parents see that there are many creative opportunities for their children – art class, music classes, the school band. Parents were able to bring home their canvas to display as a gift from the school that could now be part of their home, in keeping with the overall notion of partnership. 


  • Give them a pathway. Parents want to be a part of their kids’ lives at school. Create an opportunity and they will take it. 
  • Plan lots of small, low-budget events. Parents need lots of opportunities that are casual and non-threatening — moments that let kids and parents/caregivers bond, while families also interact with school staff and other parents in their kid’s grade. Also: Advertise well in advance using all social media platforms to make sure families have all the details. 
  • Not every student is being raised by parents. So be aware of language. The Charleroi team was glad they called their event “Donuts with Grownups,” since some students brought an older sibling or a guardian or someone else. It was important to make those folks feel welcome and respected.
  • Eliminate barriers. If there is any possibility that cost will be a barrier, make all events free. Even charging $3 can be a barrier, Killinger says. Though sometimes people RSVP and then don’t show up if they haven’t paid for a ticket, it’s still better to make events free – and welcoming – than to charge people. 
  • Talk to other districts grappling with similar issues. The Charleroi team wants to connect with other districts who have large/growing ESL populations to see how they are communicating with families and addressing those families’ needs.

All parents “want to be there for their kids,” Killinger says, but “they don’t necessarily know how to.” So give them a chance, he says: Invite them in – even if it’s just for a donut and a cup of coffee – and let them know they matter. 

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.