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Burrell School District

Implementation of Fireside Chats

Parental Engagement
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Target group
January 2024
We heard about the need to connect with one another, the need for families to be back in the building. Pre-COVID there was a lot of engagement. Now, our big need is to listen, to start small and slowly build trust.

About the implementation

We needed to work on building trust, internally and externally, and on strengthening relationships to break down barriers at many levels. We have a supportive, small, close-knit community but struggle with attendance for educational events beyond parent-teacher conferences, sports, and music events. It felt like one-way conversation and we wanted to push to the next level and make it two-way.

What did you do in practice?

The idea for “fireside chats" came from brainstorming. We asked ourselves: What is something different from what is already done? What can we pull off quickly and easily? Initially we thought about a bonfire and realized that making our event more intimate was a better idea. Partnering with the fire/EMS, we had 6 fire pits in the high school parking lot. Parents joined one of the chats alongside teachers and administrators. The fire/EMS supports even formed a group. We had a separate chat for middle schoolers and one for high school kids. We had a great community conversation!

Why did you do this implementation trial?

People overall have had a positive experience with the district, but many hidden things had started to surface...some came out through earlier empathy interviews but more through 10 coffee chats we had hosted in various locations accessible to parents. Attendance was initially low, which was discouraging, but we had great conversations with the people who came. We have seen those who attended the coffee talks come back for future events, with our attendance increasing each time! It was the start of building trust.


The most rewarding thing was building relationships, ones that didn’t exist before – with parents and with the community. For example, the Fireside Chats led to a great partnership with the fire department. They had helped manage the fire pits and had ideas for partnering with the school and the community. Other learnings emerged too.

We learned that not every student is connected to the school and parents can help us do better.
“Fun” attracts the families, it's not just food.
Parents may be more comfortable sharing with another parent, like our parent co-lead.
We have seen new families come out for events.
Beyond attendance, using different ways of collecting information keeps it interesting.

Learning Journey

Team Brainstorm
Our team came together for the design kickoff and quickly found common ground: We care deeply about our families, kids, community and identity. We felt very strongly that we needed to build trust first. We began with a series of coffee gatherings in locations accessible to parents: Parks, fire halls, community centers, school, churches. We talked with them about the purpose of school and how they felt about engagement. Some talks were with high school seniors about their K-12 experience.
Aspirational Statement
Through conversations and thinking about what we have in common as a school community, we decided on this aspirational statement as the guide to our work: "We will build trust between families, educators, and administrators." It was important that we built authentic trust between the different school community members and this started with talking about what school meant to them.
Hack Experiment: Fireside Chats
Our big question was about reaching individuals whose voices aren't heard, whose opinions about the school district aren't always positive. We needed a better understanding of how to be more inclusive. The idea for “fireside chats” began by asking: What can we do that is different and easy to implement? We hosted 6 campfires in a school parking lot. Parents and students joined with teachers and admin for conversation about school that became increasingly more honest as the evening went on.
Insights from the Fireside Chats
A parent had this insight: “If you reach one and build an authentic relationship, it can lead to bigger things. As a parent, it was huge to be invited to a small intimate conversation to be heard.” In other ways, data gained from parents, students, school staff and the community will inform the district's comprehensive planning process for family engagement in the 2023-2026 plan and will be used to plan future family engagement work.
What's Next: Burrell Community Connections
Based on feedback from families, we decided to try hosting a larger event called "Burrell Community Connections." This was a fun and casual experience for students, families and teachers. There were food trucks, STEAM hands-on stations hosted by the middle school and community stations for families to learn about new resources. This engaging event helped us connect with parents more personally, and create connections between parents and teachers as well as community organizations.


Our work took place in Burrell School District, a small, rural, public school district located in northern Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. The district is 18 miles (29 km) northeast of Pittsburgh. The District serves the City of Lower Burrell and Upper Burrell Township and covers 27 square miles (70 km).

Charles A Huston Middle School
Burrell High School