Considering Private School? Tips for Attending an Open House
Read advice from local private school administrators
The Triangle area has 132 private schools.* Each one has developed its own particular approach to educating children and building character, so that’s 132 unique educational visions being offered to families across the Triangle. Families weighing private school options have a lot of digging to do to find the right place to educate their kids.
One way to get a lot of information about a private school in one condensed package is to attend its open house. This is exactly what it sounds like. A school opens its doors in order to introduce potential students and their families to its community and approach to education. The experience varies from school to school and can tell families a lot about each institution.
To help you approach this experience, we interviewed administrators who work at private schools across the Triangle to get tips on how your family can get the most out of attending an open house.
Finding a Fit
“The most important thing that parents can do in this process, I think, is to really find a school that fits their child and their family the best,” says Mary Golden, director of school programs at The Raleigh School.
Victoria Muradi, admissions director at Durham Academy, agrees. “It really is about match,” she says. “It’s match between the academic piece; it’s match between the resources of the school; the philosophy in terms of your family values and what the school is trying to impart on kids … all those things need to line up.”
Families should think ahead about what they want from a school and what their child needs so they can ask relevant questions at the open house.
“Describe your child and ask about the opportunities for him or her at that school,” suggests Margaret Mills, director of enrollment management at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh. “That gives us the opportunity to really share what we’re able to offer that child and [to determine] if it seems like a fit.”
Let the School Introduce Itself
“The opportunity for a family to visit a school is often the start of the relationship with the school,” Mills says. What does the school want to emphasize about itself at the start of that relationship? A school’s presentation choices can say a lot about its areas of emphasis.
Who leads the campus tours and answers questions — administrators or students? How much time is given for families to ask questions? Can families meet and talk to teachers? What parts of the campus are families invited to see? These details and others come together to show families what each school wants to emphasize about itself, which can tell parents a lot about the school’s values.
The Classroom in Action
All of the school representatives interviewed for this article emphasize that it’s important for parents to observe in-session classroom time, either during the open house or while on a separate tour. Families can gain valuable information from seeing the levels of student and teacher engagement, and how the school’s mission plays out in the classroom.
Some schools offer open houses during active school days, incorporating classroom visits into the event. Other schools hold evening open houses designed to give parents information about the school, and encourage families to tour the campus and visit classrooms during the day. Parents should note the degrees to which schools incorporate opportunities for families to observe in-session classes, then spend some time in an active classroom if this is allowed.
Should You Take the Kids?
Schools differ on the question of whether to take prospective students to open houses. They tend to agree that young children can distract parents from focusing on details, but they differ in their suggestions as to whether older elementary, middle and high school students should attend open houses.
Muradi notes research indicating that parents frequently allow middle and high school kids to make the final call as to which schools they would like to attend. Accordingly, Durham Academy strongly recommends that students in grades five and older attend open houses and, more importantly, participate in “shadow days” — days on which prospective students attend class with assigned buddies to whom they can talk about issues that matter to them.
Julia Taylor, assistant principal at GRACE Christian School in Cary, encourages students to attend open houses, but particularly favors shadow days. “They are going to gain more from speaking to their own peers than they will necessarily from sitting through a presentation,” she says.
Deb Newlin, admissions director at Triangle Day School in Durham, feels open houses are more useful for parents than students, who engage better with separate tours of the campus.
How to Prepare
Before attending an open house, families should review the school’s mission statement and get a sense of what the school’s goals are. That way, they can use the open house to see how the school’s goals play out in campus life.
In terms of practicalities, families should plan to find child care for any children too young to manage an hour or two without distracting their parents. They should plan to stay the whole time, since the presentations are designed to offer different kinds of information during different stages of the event. Some schools also suggest that families take notebooks or type notes on their phones about what they learn during their visit.
Follow Your Instincts
School visits are an essential step in the decision process for rational reasons — but also for reasons that are intangible. Newlin says the most important aspect of attending an open house is “trying to get the overall feel of the school. What is the atmosphere when you walk in the door?”
School administrators and staff agree that it’s important for parents to pay attention to their instincts about what they see and experience at a school. Many details come together to form an impression that can tell families more than what an intellectual analysis can accomplish.
“It’s one thing when you can look at all of the literature from a school. Most are going to share a lot of the same [kinds of] information,” Taylor says, adding that this does matter. But she encourages parents to trust their feelings about a school as well. Families can often sense a good or bad fit.
“I know a lot of our parents will say they just know when they walk in the door,” she says.
* Total based on the combined number of private schools in Orange, Durham, and Wake counties as reported by Private School Review online at privateschoolreview.com.
Elizabeth Brignac is a freelance writer and mother of two boys in Cary.