A few years ago, I walked into the home of a friend who also happened to be a school administrator (the two often seem to go together). Expecting him to greet me in a relatively normal fashion, I was a bit surprised to find him frantic and on the phone. Apparently, his school had just botched their open house and he and his fellow administrators were now scrambling to schedule local parlor meetings and other ways to reach out to the community to get out the message that they had failed to effectively communicate that morning.
What struck me as funny about this was how unnecessary this all should have been. Yes, his school has several local competitors, but the fact is that most prospective parents and students could probably have told you more or less what made this school unique from the others, which students already attended the school, what the word on the street was about the school, and so on and so on. In other words - what was the purpose of the open house in the first place?
This issue bothers me every year as we prepare for the open house in my school. Every school in my area holds one of these events, and the costs in money and time are staggering. While I am not privy to the specific budget involved, schools spend money on consultants pushing the latest cool model for open houses, for ads in local Jewish papers, for decor and food, and for who knows what else.
On top of that, and perhaps a bigger drain on the school, is the amount of human time involved. Meeting after meeting of administrators and teachers and lay leaders to make sure that every detail of the open house is planned just so in order to maximize the positive buzz that emerges from the evening. On top of that, it is almost impossible for an open house to be a winning moment - if it goes well, then you did what was expected. If it goes poorly, people ask how you can mess something up when you had four months to prepare?!?!
And what is actually the goal of the open house? On the elementary school level, and perhaps the high school level as well, the main goal is to get people to come back to take a tour when they can get a truer and more unvarnished look at the school - the school in action during the day and not the school when it is dressed up for a two-hour show at night with no students present.*
*Kind of funny that an open house trying to sell a school has everything except the actual students. I am not counting those students who are carefully selected to serve as smiling faces at the open house, kind of like the smiling kids on the tarmac greeting foreign dignitaries to North Korea.
There may be a second goal of the open house - to give the prospective parents or students a warm fuzzy. In other words, the open house aims to make an emotional impact that hopefully will carry the day when families are making their decisions. As I noted before, there is not really much of an intellectual decision to make - most people learn much of their information about schools by talking to people who already attend or by picking up the general "word on the street." No, the open house tries to paint a rosy picture of the school that will be difficult for you to forget when you are making your decision. In other words, it aims to sway a $100,000-$150,000 decision based on a gauzy video and some nice presentations in an extremely controlled environment.**
**In no way should this post be seen as denigrating the work that people put into the open houses. I have seen many dedicated and talented people devote and donate much of their time to producing impressive open house productions. My point is that all of that work could be better directed towards helping the schools in a thousand other areas.
My colleague, Rabbi Steven Penn (@stevenpenn1) has an idea which I think is brilliant, and is actually done at a higher level of education. His suggestion is for all schools that serve a given area to have one showcase night in a neutral location. Each school will have a booth and can do with the booth as they wish, with the goal being for everyone to sign people up for tours. Obviously, schools who seek to impress with new buildings or flashy productions will lose that aspect of the night, but the savings in man-time and money should be well worth it. Basically, this is what Yeshivot and Seminaries in Israel do. At least in the New York/New Jersey area, there is one night in each general region where all Israel schools send a representative in order to present and arouse interest. After that evening, students and parents investigate their chosen schools, perhaps take a trip to Israel to go on tours, and ultimately come to a decision. On the whole, it seems to work, and I am not sure why Jewish Day Schools and High Schools in areas where there are choices should not aim to follow their model.
What do we think? Can this work?