Pittsburgh-region superintendents get an up-close look at creative hacks from Parents as Allies
All photos by Ben Filio.
Just a few weeks prior to the holiday school break, a group of western Pennsylvania superintendents capped off a full day of meetings with four surprising experiences – all courtesy of the Parents as Allies research project.
Filing into a reception room in downtown Pittsburgh, these school administrators found themselves standing before burning candles at an altar built to honor ancestors on the Day of the Dead. Avonworth Primary Center principal Scott Miller and parents Soha Hindawy and Christina Del Campo talked them through the creative process that led to the district’s “Hi, Neighbor” event, where a Day of the Dead altar had been featured alongside interactive displays celebrating Ramadan and Lunar New Year.
Taking in the sights and sounds of Avonworth’s presentation, these members of the Pittsburgh region’s Superintendents’ Forum saw first-hand how one Pittsburgh area school district is building genuine engagement between families and the school by sharing and celebrating the community’s growing patchwork of cultural traditions.
But that eye-opening experience was only step one.
Moments later, the group began building card houses and stacking chairs on top of tables to experience the hands-on learning that’s being spearheaded by parents in the Northgate school district.
In an innovative program dreamed up through the Parents as Allies human-centered design process, Northgate has begun training parents to volunteer as certified coaches in the district’s maker space. These parents ensure that the maker space is staffed with helpful adults, and in the process they become more deeply connected to the school and to their own child’s learning.
To give the superintendents a quick immersion into this program, the Northgate team set up a challenge just like the ones that kids and parents team up on at the district’s Avalon elementary school maker space. Armed with notecards and folders, they worked in small teams to construct towers that reached as high as possible. Resourceful teams were encouraged to use any other materials they wished to, and soon they were stacking furniture to boost their towers higher and even constructing windscreens to keep a nearby air vent from toppling their paper creations.
The administrators quickly discovered Northgate’s secret — how much fun teamwork could be.
Avalon Elementary parent Ryan Cupps, who helped design the “Parents as Allies in Making” volunteer program, was on hand to help the superintendents compete to build the highest tower. He also shared with them about the deep connections parents are forming with the school through this collaboration.
As they actively experiment and tinker alongside kids in the maker space, he said, parents are sharing their own enthusiasm for learning and also connecting in new ways with teachers.
“It’s much more than being an extra set of hands,” Cupps told the group.
BREAKING DOWN THE PROCESS
With their maker projects complete, the superintendents then journeyed along “the road to true partnership” between families and schools that Brentwood Borough school district has been building.
Stephanie DeLuca, Brentwood’s director of curriculum, instruction and professional development, used a wall-sized cartoon depiction of this pathway to share a concise summary of all that her district has accomplished through Parents as Allies since the project’s launch in 2021.
Along with sharing about the positive outcomes and strengthened communication that has emerged between parents and schools in Brentwood, she gave the group a window into ways parents and teachers have deeply listened to one another – and to their students. Among their results: plans to pilot a “youth ambassador” program to welcome new students.
Across the room, the superintendents were treated to one more experience: A visit with West Allegheny school district parent Hera Nafees and McKee Elementary principal Melissa Wagner.
Nafees and Wagner shared the personal experiences they’ve had while partnering to bridge gaps in language and cultural understanding in their district. Their mutual goal: to ensure that all families in West Allegheny feel authentically welcome.
The superintendents got a visual walk-through of slides about “McKee Dine and Dialogue,” a series of monthly gatherings where families who speak English as a second language have a safe space to ask questions, share experiences, access resources and information, and advocate for their children.
These gatherings have helped McKee staff develop understanding, empathy and appreciation to better support the adults and kids in their community who are English-language learners. As they share traditional foods and recipes with one another, real connections are being born.
The information Nafees and Wagner shared was compelling. But perhaps most powerfully, the superintendents got to experience the authentic friendship that has grown between this parent and this principal.
That was, perhaps, the key to this brief but powerful demonstration.
When the Parents as Allies team describes the work they’re doing, it often grabs people’s interest. The project mixes high-level global research with on-the-ground work led by teams of parents and educators who bring tons of creativity to the vital work of building true connections between schools and families.
But as compelling as this idea may sound when it’s described, the work of parent/school teams and the results they’re having are even more exciting when they’re experienced in person. Ideally, as Parents as Allies continues to grow during 2023 and beyond, many more school districts around the globe will discover what’s possible.
For now, a growing number of Pittsburgh school districts are taking notice.
“The superintendents seemed eager to learn more,” said Linda Krynski, Kidsburgh’s director and a co-founder of the Parents as Allies initiative. “After all, they share the common desire to build and strengthen home-school relationships. The Forum offered the chance to see how even small steps can yield results, and that possibility is leading to the commitment of more teams to the project. We want to keep growing! And we want to keep sharing what we’re learning. The whole point is working together, as authentic partners, for the good of our kids.”
The project “Parents as Allies” is generously funded by The Grable Foundation.