Open Houses for Fuller Enrollment
Periodically, school professionals, myself included, have questioned the usefulness of having open houses for prospective student families as part of a recruitment program. Their effectiveness is unpredictable, and the amount of effort that goes into planning an open house may not be worth the time and money involved.
Wise people often ask wiser people for their opinions and experiential wisdom. After getting consensus from my teaching staff that our open house format needed improvement, I reached out to two of the deans of the communal school world for their advice. Both of them helped immensely by confirming that open houses are valuable when done right, and by sharing some of their personal open-house best practices.
Bruce Powell from de Toledo High School in Los Angeles confirmed what I have long believed: If the first time a prospective family meets a staff member from your school is when they walk into a model lesson at an open house, that will often be the last time you see them. The prospective parents and students are often too nervous and anxious to get comfortable with you, your school or your staff by the time the initial interaction concludes.
Of course, knowing someone prior to the open house helps alleviate this unease. But what can schools do to reduce the stress level of new prospective families who visit the school for the first time? The standard administrator greeting them at the door and having a student or parent docent guide the guest is necessary but not always sufficient to lower the anxiety level of a visitor. Powell’s idea of having a “learning shuk” offered a powerful means to increase the comfort level of prospective families. This idea helps solve the problem of some early arrivals being bored or some late arrivals missing out on key presentations.
In addition to the standard nosh and/or music for the first half-hour of an open house, have teachers from each academic discipline stand behind tables talking about their subject areas with potential parents who mill around the room or seek them out. Each teacher presents artifacts from their classroom, utilizes props and even invites student assistants to help explain what they’re learning in class. The opportunity to make informal initial introductions to teachers makes the more formal model lessons that follow a more comfortable experience for both the teachers and the guests.
Zipora Schorr from Beth Tfiloh Dahan in Baltimore helped us spot an obvious flaw in our open house model that was easily corrected once we were aware of it. In order to maximize staff availability, we had always run model lessons for combined groups of parents and students at the same time. Schools would never run classes for groups with an age disparity of 20 or 30 years between students, yet that is exactly what we had done at open houses. Aside from cognitive and generational differences, having students and their parents together in the classroom led to social awkwardness. The simple change of running separate sessions for adults and for students improved our model class presentations immensely.
As a result of these changes, our numbers of follow-ups, shadow visits, tours, applications and ultimately enrolled students increased. As someone once told me, “Setting up the physical environment properly is one of the most important factors contributing to success.”