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Shaler Area School District

Implementation of Welcome 4th Graders!

Parental Engagement





Target group
January 2024
We talk a lot about partnering with parents but sometimes we don’t really partner. Sometimes we dictate to the parents and vice versa. Slow down and really partner and build trust. We want to have really honest and authentic conversations.

About the implementation

Post-COVID, it felt like there was a disconnect with the community. The teachers felt it too. We wanted feedback to spark positive change and started with a survey to 4th grade families that began with input from their 4th grader. The survey confirmed that there was a disconnect and also identified some communication issues.

What did you do in practice?

Our hack was a transition event for the incoming 4th grade students and their families. The students were all coming from one of four primary schools to the elementary school. This was the first time these students and families would come together. We began by asking: What type of event could we put in place to better support our families?

Why did you do this implementation trial?

We wanted to have really honest and authentic conversations with our parents, also understanding the need for some vulnerability on our part. We heard that families were anxious. When we looked deeper, we realized we were missing an opportunity for families and teachers to get to know each other, to just socialize. And we needed kids to get together and just be kids. It was top of mind that this was the first time that families were mixing together into one school.


"I credit the parents on the team. They really wanted the transition event on a Sunday," says the principal. The reason: Families are together on Sundays and there are fewer activities on those afternoons. We had around 170 students and their families attend (out of 300). There were both direct and indirect positive results:

We saw the anxiety of the parents and the kids decrease.
Parents shared their increased comfort and the comfort of their children during the transition.
Teachers felt they also had fewer anxious students and parents during the year.
Parents talked to each other.
A positive mind shift for teachers when communication improved from suggestions made by parents.

Learning Journey

Empathy Interviews
The team parents gave us valuable credibility when they went into the community to gather feedback through empathy interviews. The survey that followed was targeted, intentional and specific. We carefully thought out questions and focused on 4th grade families and their transition. They had just gone through the transitional year and we wanted their feedback about what went well and what to improve. More than ever before, the survey provided better results and more actionable ideas.
Aspirational Statement
One of the recurring themes we heard from families during our empathy interviews was a request to have clearer, more consistent, and more frequent communication from the school. We decided we wanted to create more ways to connect parents and teachers. With that, our aspirational statement to guide our work is: "We will build opportunities for teamwork between families, educators, and administrators to support students' learning and wellbeing."
Hack: New Welcome Event for Incoming 4th graders
To bring together incoming 4th graders, we hosted a new welcome event. Our school has homerooms and teams so when families checked in to the event, the students learned which of the four groups they were assigned to for their upcoming grade team. This gave parents, teachers and students a chance to meet. There were various activities and a banner for all the students to sign. We had a great spread of families in attendance and representation from all the primary schools (K-3).
Another Hack: 6th Grade Sendoff
We learned that the transition year into a new school is critical for families. Both parents and kids have many worries. Building upon our "Welcome Event" for 4th graders, we hosted a 6th Grade Sendoff for the students moving to middle school. It was carnival style with games and food and parents were required to stay with their kids. Teachers volunteered to be at the event which led to parents and teachers connecting in a relaxed atmosphere. Everyone came away excited for middle school!
Parent Feedback
A parent on the team had conducted her empathy interview with the social worker/counselor. The parent learned what she had not known, that the district also served foster kids and kids experiencing homelessness. She'd assumed that those kinds of needs did not exist in the district. There was a positive shift for her following this interview. Not only did she felt more connected but she encouraged other parents to trust the school more as they looked at critical junctures of transition.
Reflection and Next Steps
We restaged the welcome event and nearly all the 4th grade teachers were in attendance on a Sunday afternoon. They really felt the positive impact during the school year and the connection with families and parents. We have to invest the time in the partnership and regard parents as equals. We're also learning that sustainability is more than big events. We need smaller, equally effective ways to connect too. We want to hear from parents on the team. Our work now has a line item in the budget!


Shaler Area School District is a large, urban and suburban public school district located in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The District encompasses approximately 14 square miles in Pittsburgh's northern suburbs, including Shaler Township, Etna Borough, Millvale Borough, and Reserve Township.

Shaler Area Elementary School