A Primer for Parents: The Open House Experience

by Alexi Wilbourn

“Education is a team sport [between parents and the school] – it’s not just dump your kid and hope they learn something,” says Matthew Tarpley, headmaster of Aurora Day School in Tucker. Open houses are the time for parents to learn critical information about their child’s potential school, and a time to open the door to communication with that school. Attend your next open house equipped with what to expect and your note pad full of questions so you will get the most you can out of the experience.

The Basics

Expect to hear words of welcome from administrators and probably a plug from the PTA. Schools usually include a brief history of the school, an overview of its educational philosophy and the official mission statement. In other words, you’ll hear some pretty general information that you probably already found on the school’s website. In most cases, a sampling of the school’s extracurricular activities will be given to parents, either on paper or through a PowerPoint presentation. This overview period provides a good time for parents to ask about the bus schedule, school lunches, physical education requirements and other general information, such as dress code.

Most schools offer a guided tour of the facilities, which should include the media center, gymnasium, computer labs and classrooms. If your child is already enrolled in the school, you may be dismissed to meet with your child’s future teacher. Remember, open houses are for everyone, so it’s not a time to discuss specific concerns about your individual child. An exception to this rule may be special needs schools, such as Aurora Day, where sessions are smaller and personnel may be on hand to help you assess whether the school is the best fit for your child.

Be sure to ask for evidence of things the school claims to produce. Look at SAT scores, attendance records and grade-point averages. Some schools even assess student happiness.
Schools will make claims about particular programs that may not be completely accurate. For example, if a school claims to offer an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, verify that they are IB-authorized by the external organization. Along the same lines, don’t walk away with false or misleading ideas. Just because a school says that it offers programs such as IB doesn’t mean that every student is eligible.
Follow up after the open house with phone calls and emails, advises Tarpley, who agrees there’s no such thing as a dumb question. “Make sure the school is offering what you and your child need,” he says.

Go Beyond the Open House

If the open house takes place while school is in session, you should be able to catch a glimpse into a classroom. Open houses during evening hours simply show you vacant rooms.

This is where you can be proactive. Call the prospective school and schedule a time in which you can observe a class in session. This will give you a more accurate  representation of the teaching style and classroom setting than a brief peek. Classroom details can give you an idea of class expectations. Are the desks arranged in groups or in rows facing the teacher? This is typically an indication of the amount of student interaction that is encouraged in that classroom.

Take a tour yourself. Look for physical indicators of the school’s sense of pride and awareness. Do teachers set a good example by picking up trash from the floor? Examine the condition of the restrooms, especially in middle and high schools. The interiors may indicate whether the school makes the appearance of its facilities a priority.
Talk to other parents about the school. “When you’re out somewhere and see a particular car decal or uniform from a school, don’t be afraid to ask that parent about it,” says Howell, adding that most folks are happy to share their thoughts.


Think About the Long Run

Not many parents like to uproot their children from school once enrolled, so look at the big picture. Although your child may be entering Pre-K, you may be hoping to stay with the system through high school, so research graduation and college placement rates, as well as the percentage of scholarship recipients. This information is usually found on the school’s website, but the admissions department will also be able to answer these questions. And as for sitting in on a classroom session, don’t just observe your child’s immediate grade level, advises Howell. Your second-grader will eventually become a fifth-grader, so be aware of how classroom settings may vary within the same school.

Questions, Questions, Questions

Look past the terms that schools use to describe themselves. “For example, if you’re looking for a Christian school, what’s behind that word? Are Bible values intertwined with everyday lessons?” asks Kim Howell, director of admissions at Cherokee Christian Academy in Woodstock. As the mother of two, she had to ask the same questions at open houses and tours to narrow down school choices for her own kids.

Decoding the Fancy Terms

How do you discover what your prospective school really means when there’s a lot of fancy jargon? The Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education (CASIE) gives insight into the terms schools toss around.

Academic Rigor: This is a subjective term. Be prepared to look at the curriculum yourself and assess the difficulty by your own standards.

One-to-One Laptop: This means that every child will have a laptop, either funded by the school or you. Inquire about laptop procedures. Will kids turn off their screens during instruction or possibly become lost in the cyber world during lectures?

Global Citizens: A subjective term depending on your definition of a global citizen; this approach is often shown by utilizing few to no textbooks and placing an emphasis on current and multicultural events.

Target Language Instruction: This is a language immersion program. Ask to observe a classroom. You should hear approximately 90 percent of the target language used.

Whole Child: This term emphasizes a well-rounded education. Look on the school stationery for a general look into what the school deems important. “Whole child” schools often list a director of fine arts in addition to the principal, athletic director and counselor.