By Michael Salzbank
It is quite remarkable how quickly things can change. Just a generation or two ago, an Open House was a real estate term. Today it is a season in the calendar when schools host major events to showcase their programs and buildings. One just has to look in the newspapers right after the Yomim Noraim to see that everyone has one. The reason for the change is quite simple. Years ago a community may have had one or two choices; each school was clearly distinct in their hashkafa and their target audience. Since it was readily apparent to all, there was no need for an Open House. Today, though, with our larger communities there are more schools and the lines that distinguish them are blurred. Since there is overlap between them, Open Houses are seen as the best way for discerning parents to make an informed decision.
Are Open Houses really the best way to learn about a school? Are these carefully orchestrated marketing events the most accurate reflection of an institution? Does anyone really think the boys walk the halls in suits or the girls wear Shabbos clothes each day? It’s nice that the 8th grader, carefully selected to speak is so articulate, but what does that mean for rest of the school and more importantly for my child? Of course there is a lot of valuable information provided at an Open House. One will learn about the academics, extra-curricular programs and where the graduates attend school. It goes without saying that doing one’s own research and speaking with those who have children currently attending the school will yield valuable insight. However, if an Open House only highlights the positive and camouflages the negative, how can parents gain the most from these visits?
It begins with a change in one’s focus. If you come to an Open House anxious to hear all about their wonderful programs, then that is all you will hear. You will be dialed into their pitch and walk away with just what they intended for you to know. However, if you come prepared with a different mindset, one where you listen attentively to see how what they say relates to your concerns, you will have separated the kernel from the chaff. An astute parent will gain as much from the avoidance of certain topics in the presentation as they do from the direct discussion of others. As they say “the silence is deafening”.
What is this change of mindset?
Firstly, parents must realize that despite knowing their child, they don’t have a crystal ball. For the incoming freshman in high school, the next four years are among the most turbulent. They are wrestling with academic, spiritual, emotional and social challenges that can have a major impact on their needs in high school. For parents, whose child is entering an elementary school, there is even more unknown. As adorable as they are now at 4 years old, their development is only beginning. What will be their strengths and weaknesses? Will they be at the top of the class, the bottom or in the crowded middle? What emotional and social challenges will emerge in the years to come? No one knows.
The key questions are, given that we don’t know what will unfold in my child’s future, what plan does the school have in place to identify his or her strengths and weaknesses? And once they do recognize them, are they equipped to address them with enrichment or remediation? What does the school do to challenge each of the children in the large middle group? So, the presentation takes on new meaning as they discuss their academic programs. You are not just listening for the enrichment opportunities for your 4 year old doctor-to-be, but you are listening to hear their approach for all students.
Success in school goes beyond academics, the social and emotional progress is essential for a healthy self-esteem and ultimate growth. How sensitive are the school’s tools for early detection of emotional and social issues or do they typically respond only after the fact? A child will face many changes as they mature. The question parents need to ask is how well the school handles them.
Perhaps the most overlooked, yet most significant impact on a child is the overall tenor of the school. Is it overly competitive creating stress or overly relaxed impeding responsibility or have they struck a healthy balance? How do they deal with students and parents? Are they responsive? Do parents and children feel they are being heard and validated? No, is an acceptable answer, provided it doesn’t come across as arbitrary or just a matter of expedience. Children will spend up to 10 years in a school and they will be exposed to hundreds of problems, if not thousands. Some may seem as trivial as forgetting their lunch at home, to a girl not being their friend. Serious issues like illness and even death will undoubtedly arise through the years. Students absorb their surroundings and unconsciously will learn how to respond in the future from how they had seen problems handled in their youth. They learn much more than just Chumash, math and science in school. They are called the formative years for good reason.
Around 1990 when I was attending Open Houses the question all parents asked was “do they teach computers?” (At the time I had no idea what they really entailed, but I knew I had to ask it). At the turn of century the question was if the school had smartboards as if that guaranteed an excellent education, and today they ask regarding special STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs. Schools and parents can get fixated on the latest buzz words when the bottom line is, “Is this a school striving to stay ahead of the learning curve, are they proactive in incorporating the best advances in education and are they striving to reach every student? Is this a school driven by short term results in education or one that nurtures long term academic, spiritual, social and emotional growth? I read the school’s mission statement, have I heard and seen how they achieve it, do they walk the walk? Am I leaving this Open House confident that I have learned the answers to these questions?”
In general if a parent goes into the School Open House with the outlook of needing to know how the school will deal with developing changes, in education and in my child, they will perceive the less tangible, yet arguably, the most important factors in their decision.
Michael Salzbank has lived in Kew Gardens Hills for 32 years. After a 23 year career on Wall Street as independent floor trader, He worked 5 years as the Executive Director for Mesivta Ateres Yaakov and currently serves in the role at Bnos Malka Academy in Queens.