What You’ll Learn At School Open House

By Mimi Slawoff

L.A. Schools

Details you notice at an open house can tell you a great deal about a school and its culture. Westridge School for Girls even offers small meet-and-greets prior to open houses. PHOTO COURTESY WESTRIDGE SCHOOL FOR GIRLS

While searching for private schools for their son Kevin (now in college), Tony and Kristy Adler of Bel Air eagerly attended several open houses at L.A. schools with him. They quickly learned the do’s and don’ts of open-house protocol.

“We were doomed at one school from the beginning when I grabbed our son’s name badge. Apparently, that was one of the tests, to see if a child recognizes his own name,” says Tony.

The Adlers learned to stand back and let their son take the lead. “When it was time for applying to middle and high schools, we gave guidance to our son, but still appeared only in the background to the administrators,” says Tony.

Open houses at private schools, charter and magnet schools can vary greatly. At charter and magnet schools, these public-school events typically take place in the fall, and families with prospective students as young as kindergarten age are usually welcome to attend together.

Charter-school open houses typically are scheduled during a school day, and might or might not include a campus tour. Magnet schools usually offer a couple of open houses before applications are due in November.

Most private-school open houses take place on weekends in fall, and sometimes again in January or spring. Typically, open houses for private elementary schools are just for parents. It’s not until the middle and high school years that students are invited to attend. Private schools also offer other campus events for prospective families.

Why Open Houses Are Important

Families aren’t generally required to attend an open house before submitting an application for their child to attend a school, but most schools encourage it. “Open houses are a great way for prospective students and their parents to see everything in action,” says Michelle November, senior admissions officer for de Toledo High School in West Hills. “They offer a comprehensive overview of school culture, curriculum and unique programs.”

Kerry Maguire, director of admissions at Chatsworth Hills Academy, says families should view open houses as a chance to gather firsthand experience with the school community and an opportunity to express interest in enrolling in the school.

“For developing a sense of the school, talking to teachers and administrators is important, but also talking to parent volunteers and any students you encounter,” says Maguire. “For expressing your interest in attending the school, be sure to touch base with the admissions staff.”

L.A. schools

Sunday morning open houses at de Toledo High School are elaborate affairs. All of the school’s teachers, plus about 30 current school parents and 30 student ambassadors, attend. PHOTO COURTESY DE TOLEDO HIGH SCHOOL

Preparing For Your Visit

Before attending an open house, families should take the important step of identifying their educational values, says Maguire. Are you looking for a traditional or progressive school? A school that emphasizes basic or special skills? A small- or large-school setting?

Make a list of three or four schools you would like to visit and research them. Doing as much advance research as possible provides context for what families see and hear on open house day, and makes the day much more productive.

“We recommend researching the website, requesting and reading information packets, talking with people who have students at the school and, if possible, visiting the school before the formal open house,” says Helen Hopper, director of admissions at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena.

Open houses can be a lot to take in, so Westridge offers small-group meet-and-greet events for parents before the open house. “We think a first, quieter meeting and tour while school is in session helps people get the most out of our open house,” says Hopper.

It is also a good idea to prioritize which facets of a school and its programs are most important to your family, so you can make sure to focus on those factors, and to think of some of your questions in advance. Bring a pen and paper to jot down notes.

Open House Activities

Depending on the school, open houses can include presentations, displays, performances and classroom visits, along with the opportunity to chat up teachers, administrators and families with currently enrolled students.

The Curtis School for students in kindergarten through sixth grade in Los Angeles holds two parents-only open houses each fall. The head of school discusses the school’s philosophy and teaching style. Division heads speak in detail about the academic program, and parents are walked through the admissions process.

“The final part of the evening is parent-led tours around the campus, which gives parents an opportunity to share their experiences and gives prospective parents the opportunity to ask questions,” says Mimi Petrie, director of admissions at Curtis.

The Sunday morning open houses at de Toledo High School (formerly New Community Jewish High School) are elaborate affairs that require an RSVP and name tags. All of the school’s teachers, plus about 30 current school parents and 30 student ambassadors, attend. The head of school speaks about the institution’s vision, students share their campus experiences, alumni are on hand to field questions, and there’s music, dancing and a buffet. Typically there are separate question-and-answer sessions for parents and students. “There is energy that is captured,” says November.

Making the Most of Your Time

L.A. Schools

At schools such as Chatsworth Hills Academy, open houses are a chance for families to gather firsthand experience with the community and express interest in enrolling in the school. PHOTO BY HALLSTROM DESIGN AND PHOTOGRAPHY

Open houses give families a chance to speak with teachers (who are generally busy teaching during campus visits taking place during the school day), to chat up parents and currently enrolled students, and to check out the school’s atmosphere.

“Details can tell you a great deal about a school and its culture, so pay attention to what is posted on the walls, how current students interact when they don’t realize you are looking and other similar details which, combined with the formal program, present a full picture of a school,” says Hopper.

If you have an incoming kindergartner, see how fifth- and sixth-grade students at the school behave and think about whether you want your child to grow into that type of kid, advises Sandy Eiges, educational consultant at L.A. School Scout, a Santa Monica-based firm that helps families choose schools.

Notice the other families attending. Are these families you would be happy to know? “You want to see families like yours, because you will be spending years with these families,” Eiges says.

Questions To Ask

During the event, be ready to gather all the information you can. “When you go to an open house, it’s not just the school interviewing you, it’s you interviewing the school,” says Amy Walia-Fazio, executive director of Parents Education League of Los Angeles, a nonprofit dedicated to providing parents with objective information about local schools.

Ask about the curriculum, student-teacher ratio, extracurricular activities, teacher qualifications and what’s expected of parents whose children attend. At elementary schools, ask which secondary schools students go on to attend, and at secondary schools, ask where graduates go to college, advises Walia-Fazio.

Hopper, of Westridge, says it is also important to ask about how well prepared graduates were for college academics and college life, and whether they were pleased with their options and the personal fit of the colleges and universities to which they were accepted.

L.A. Schools

Look at the way students behave at school open houses and ask yourself whether you’d like your child to grow into that type of kid. PHOTO COURTESY CHATSWORTH HILLS ACADEMY

She says it’s essential to ask about student and faculty retention rates, and to ask students and their parents if they’re happy with the school. “I would also ask what they have learned about the school since joining that they didn’t realize when they were going through the admission process,” says Hopper.

And don’t leave your questions at the open-house door. To get a more complete picture of a school, inquire about student and parent tours and other campus events. “It’s important to see the school in as many ways as possible and get a sense of what the community is about,” says Eiges.

November of de Toledo agrees that tours help give families a different perspective on a school. “Open houses are presented more in a choreographed fashion and the tours show you a regular school day,” she says.

With all this information duly gathered, at the end of the day, you’re really looking for the school where your child will feel most comfortable. Can you envision your daughter or son at the schools you have visited?

Kevin Adler was quick to decide on Harvard-Westlake, which has two campuses in L.A., after a student tour. “Kevin came back from his tour with such excitement,” says his dad, Tony. “They took him to a science class and he got to blow up something. What fun!”

After an open house at de Toledo High school, Chase, the eldest of Dana Klitzner’s three children, said, “Get rid of my other applications. I want to go here.” “And this is someone who didn’t want to go to Hebrew school,” says Klitzner. “But he never complained about it in the four years he was there. He liked it because he felt he was part of a community.”

For a listing of current L.A.-area open houses, click here.

Mimi Slawoff is a local mother of three and a freelance writer who frequently contributes to L.A. Parent.

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