The Pop Up Pick-nic: Pick Elementary’s New Strategy to Deepen Family Connections

By Debbie Brooks
Principal, Pick Elementary
Auburn City Schools

Relationships matter. In our world of education, we know this to be true. Relationships are necessary for building classroom community, trust and confidence. Educators work quickly at the start of each academic year to build student relationships that will last until summer and hopefully beyond that.

We also know that relationships with our students’ families are very important for each child’s success. Building those strong bonds with all families may require a “multi-tiered” kind of approach.

Every year, our teachers at Pick Elementary assess our strategies for creating meaningful connections with our students’ families. We intentionally build into our strategic thinking (and our Continuous Improvement Plans) the activities, special evenings, and parent workshops we believe will engage and support our families during the school year. We want our parents to feel welcomed, to feel supported and to experience our sincere desire to connect with them.

Back to School at Pick Elementary

We take the opportunity throughout the academic year to listen to parents and to honor their ideas and requests based on survey results. We work to offer childcare when we can so that parents can participate and be fully involved in any planned experience at school.

One year, we offered a BINGO Board for parents to complete during the year. The BINGO board encouraged attendance at conferences, attendance at PTO meetings, and participation in opportunities we offered during the academic day. Once parents completed and turned in their BINGO boards, they were eligible for some prizes. Prizes included a yearbook, a free picture package, or a voucher to our Book Fair. Participation was good, but we were still missing something.

So this year, as we reassessed our plans, we looked at survey results and decided to try a fresh approach – one that was different from all of the others we had previously tried. Our new strategy would take us off of our school campus and into the neighborhoods of our students. Most of all, it would change how we see this whole “relationship building” goal.

The Pop-up Pick-nic

The staff at Pick Elementary worked closely with our PTO to create what we decided to call a “Pop-up Pick-nic.” (Why not take advantage of our school name?!) We focused on neighborhoods with a large number of our students and we decided to go TO them instead of inviting them to the school.

After we identified those areas in our community where we had the largest numbers of students, we located ‘venues’ where we could potentially have our Pick-nic and made a selection that we decided was well-situated.

Our staff worked closely with our PTO to provide the food and drinks for our event. We mailed invitations and also personally called the parents to explain what we were doing and encourage them to come. We met with the students to share the event and also encourage them to attend.

On the day of the Pick-nic, we cooked and wrapped up hot dogs, chips, desserts and drinks after school. We also packed various games to play, such as hoopla-hoops, jump ropes, corn-hole, bubbles and sidewalk chalk. And of course, there was music! Many parents and students were able to walk from their homes to our meeting place. We all ate dinner together, laughed and played games. Parents and teachers talked and shared funny stories about life with children.

The kids wrote messages with the sidewalk chalk in the pavement. We all tapped in to our younger years, as we jumped ropes together, played with the parachute and danced to the music. Former students of Pick who lived in the area saw us outside and reconnected with former teachers. Then they ran inside and got their parents to come out.

Students brought their siblings so we met future Pick Leaders that night. Most importantly, we talked and shared ourselves with those families in a personal way that created a stronger bond than ever before. We wanted this experience to be different, meaningful and impactful.

As we packed up to leave that evening, students and their parents were invited to grab a Pick Backpack and fill it with books we’d brought to share. Students and parents looked at book covers, read together and walked away with something they could do together at home.

A new kind of joy about school

After packing up and heading out, we were all filled with a joy that was different from the other parent involvement experiences we had planned. One of our parents walked up to a staff member and said “Thank you for coming into our community and being with us tonight.” It was then that I realized that to build and maintain lasting relationships with our families, we have to do more than offer THEM the experiences. We have to have the experiences WITH them.

In my opinion, this was a Win-Win. Our faculty and staff felt reaffirmed in our commitment to do our best every day for these children and their families.

We will definitely plan more Pop-up Pick-nics!


Debbie Brooks is the Principal at Pick Elementary, a 3rd to 5th grade  school in the Auburn City system. She has been an Alabama teacher and school administrator for 33 years, working with Fairfield City Schools, Tarrant City Schools, and for the last 25 years, Auburn City Schools.

Debbie holds a BS degree in Elementary Education from Samford University and an MA and Ed.S. In Elementary Education from The University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has worked as an AdvancEd visitation team member and currently serves on two boards in her community.