The Highlands School District meets students and families where they are – and that’s not a metaphor

This story is one of a series created in partnership with the AASA Learning 2025 Alliance to celebrate the work of groundbreaking school districts in the Pittsburgh region. Kidsburgh will be sharing these stories throughout 2024.

The challenges are great. The obstacles are enormous. But when it comes to connecting with parents and truly supporting students, the Highlands School District is headed for success. Quite literally.

In a neighborhood where 64 percent of families are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged and where there are two large Section 8 apartments, Highlands strives to meet families where they are and travel directly to them to do so .

After receiving a grant from Allegheny County, the City of Highlands partnered with local company ABC Transit to create what they call the “Rams Van,” painted and named after the district’s mascot, the Golden Ram. Now families who want to connect with the schools their children attend but may not have a way to get there have a choice. In effect, it is a school administration office on wheels.

The interior of the van is equipped with a desk and a computer with WiFi. This summer, the van will visit neighborhoods including a housing development and a Section Eight park so school staff can help parents enroll incoming kindergartners and transfer students.

Rams Van will also provide donated clothing and hygiene products and even backpacks filled with goodies for students of all ages. The repair and delivery of school equipment is also on the table – or on the bus, in some sense.

This is a creative solution invented in the district, which aims to improve the quality of life of students.

The Rams Van is stocked with supplies needed by district families. Photos courtesy of the Highlands School District.

Highlands is part of the Western Pennsylvania Learning 2025 Alliance, a regional group of school districts working together with support from the Grable Foundation to create schools focused on students, equity and the future. Led by local superintendents and AASA, the Association of School Superintendents, the alliance comes together to help districts like Highlands do what they do best: help children build the brightest futures possible.

According to Superintendent Monique Mawhinney, the key to building this thriving future is connecting with students’ families.

“In many cases it is really difficult to engage parents because many of them have no transport or only one vehicle. So they have a hard time getting to the meetings that we need them here for,” Mawhinney says. “These are usually children whose attendance is really bad or who have serious behavioral problems. So we’ve really tried to find a way to expand our community reach and focus on families who just can’t reach us.”

In addition to the Rams Van, Highlands offers support to the community through “Rams Dens” open in each school building, where donated clothes, toiletries and other necessities can be donated. Children can come there before or after school, and in high school they can drop by during school hours to pick up necessary things.

What if children can’t get in or feel uncomfortable?

“We know that many times children may be embarrassed or reluctant to tell us what they need. So we want to expand into the community,” Mawhinney says. “We will take these things to them.”

A simple but powerful proposition: Rams Van includes a desk where school staff can help parents or guardians complete paperwork.


Mawhinney meets with children and parents on site. Or where she is. Or both.

In his office, which is connected to the high school, he keeps two drawers full of snacks. There are regular emails from kids asking, “Hey, can I come downstairs and have a snack?” (Her answer: Yes, but not as an excuse to skip class.)

You can hear her enthusiasm as she talks about what started at lunchtime. A group of children now regularly drop in for a meal at her office, rather than the cafeteria.

These are not sports stars or kids who expected to become top students since middle school. They’re just teenagers who know they’re welcome in their district’s superintendent’s workplace. They know that even though she is busy, she will find time to hear what they think about them and what’s new in their lives.

They know they matter.

Add these initiatives together and look at it from a longer perspective. What is becoming clear: these efforts are about education, community, and the overall well-being of children. They use school as a conscious tool to connect the neighborhoods that make up the district and show each student that they are not just a cog in some educational machine.

These moments of community connection were evident during the recent Rams Van launch, which was featured at Harvest Moon, a district parent-owned cafe. As you might expect, people loved it.

“People who understand this area know there is a huge need,” Mawhinney says, and Highlands is working to meet that need.

It all comes down to the philosophy at work in the Highlands, where the community and its needs help shape the contours of the education system today and tomorrow.

“We know we need to meet our families where they are,” Mawhinney says. “That’s what you’re going to see throughout the community and our neighborhoods.”

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