Open Season

Hunting for a private school for your child? Open houses are a chance to check out prospective schools in a low-pressure environment. So make the most of the opportunity with these tried-and-true tips.

If choosing your child’s school is like selecting a partner, then the open house is your first date.

Both of you are checking each other out, but the ball’s in your court to continue the relationship.

“The open house is a chance to get a sense of the school’s culture in a less pressured way than scheduling a formal visit and interview,” says Heather Daly, director of admission and financial aid at Hawken School. “It’s a gateway to the school.”

Before going to check out schools this spring or fall, try on these tips from local schools and parents to get the most out of your open house visit.

1. Do your homework … An open house is a starting point to your relationship with a prospective school, but be sure you’ve prepared yourself to start it right. “Some parents come not knowing anything about the school, so they don’t know what questions to ask on the tour,” says Jennifer Lowery, director of recruitment and admissions at Beaumont School. “Then they go home, read the brochure and call with an hour’s worth of questions.” Don’t squander this golden opportunity to meet school administrators, teachers, parents and students all at once: Come prepared with background and questions.

2. … but keep an open mind. Advance preparation is one thing, preconceived judgments about a school before visiting are another. “Families should approach the campus visit as if they were experiencing the school for the first time, even if they already have information or perceptions going in,” says Steve Scheidt, director of middle and upper school admissions at Gilmour Academy. “This can help parents and students see things from a fresh perspective.”

3. Mind the time. You may think “open house” implies that you can stop in any time, “but you should ask, ‘Do I need to arrive on time?’ ” suggests Mary Lisa Geppert, director of admission and financial aid at Laurel School. Geppert kicks off her open houses with a keynote address from the head of school, which latecomers often regret missing.

4. Study the walls. When Karen Miraldi was evaluating open houses for her two children, she looked to the walls for curriculum clues. “Assignments on the walls or blackboard give you a clue to what’s going on in that classroom,” she says. Miraldi, now a Lake Ridge Academy parent and open house volunteer, also asked to see parent newsletters or bulletins as further inside information on the school’s day-to-day.

5. Start two years early. The fall open house season has a way of speeding by, with placement tests following close on its heels. That’s why Lowery recommends attending open houses two years ahead. “If you start in the fall of eighth grade [for high school admission], it’s too overwhelming for a student to learn everything going into testing,” she says. “They may think they have an idea [of where they want to go], but the open house almost always changes their opinion.”

6. Bring the kids (and a notepad). With kids so busy with extracurriculars, parents may be tempted to make the open house rounds alone, but Lowery advises against it. “The child completely loses the feel of the school and misses the opportunity to ask student-to-student questions,” she says. Bring a pen and paper along, too. “You may think you’ll remember [your impressions], but when you’re visiting multiple schools, you probably won’t,” advises Rachelle Sundberg, associate director of admissions at Andrews Osborne Academy.

7. Administer the authenticity test. Most open houses give you a direct line to student feedback, but don’t bother asking them about the facts and figures you can find on any school’s Web site. “The curriculum, the procedures, they’re going to give you what they’re instructed to say,” says Lowery. “If you ask them for their personal experience in a particular area, you’ll catch them off guard and get an authentic response.” At Laurel’s open house, Geppert matches prospective and current students based on their areas of interest. “They’re always impressed with their candor,” Geppert says. “It’s a very different perspective from what you’ll get from an admissions director.”

8. Think long term. A parent of a kindergartner evaluating a K-12 school may have a hard time imagining what criteria will be important to them a decade down the road. Look for signs of the school’s mission and culture, advises Edie Sweeterman, associate director of admissions at Lake Ridge Academy. “The culture is an umbrella for what the experience will be down the road,” she says. “Our faculty members are equipped with a cross-grade message.”

9. Be demanding. An open house’s format may not cover every area in which you’re interested, so speak up about what you want to see. “Families may be surprised to learn that while an event may have structure, it’s easy to say ‘I’m interested in learning about this, can you help me?’ ” says Scheidt. Contact the admissions office in advance so they can have the drama director, volleyball coach or science club adviser at the ready for you.

10. Hurry back. “We say, ‘Don’t feel like you have to remember everything today. This is just a first step,’ ” says Sundberg. “The open house is important, but a majority of families come back and spend time here during the school day.” Such a return visit is required at Laurel, where prospective students sit in on an entire day’s schedule of classes, lunch and desired extracurriculars.

11. Stats are great, but value the “feel.” When Colette Gallagher Mentrek began evaluating schools for her two children, she came armed with statistics detailing average SAT scores, cost and more. “I start with the very concrete stuff,” Mentrek says. But it wasn’t the data that sold her on Laurel School and University School for her kids. “I knew all the statistics, but going to the open house was my window into the school’s personality.”

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