Private schools host Open Houses to attract new families. We started having them about 10 years ago - a little late to the game, because we had been using a host of other methods to spread the word and bring in new students. But we figured: everyone else is doing it, why not give it a try?
So we publicized our first one as widely as possible: flyers mailed to people who had expressed some interest in the school, advertisements in local newspapers, and posters in libraries and other public places that allowed us to post them. The biggest question was: what members of the school community should be the actual hosts, greeting the guests who came and explaining the school’s philosophy and practices?
That all the staff would have to be present was obvious. But we needed more people, and we knew we would need some students, alumni and parents to help us. We gave a lot of thought to the problem of who to invite, made up a list, and asked them to come. The pilot Open House went well, and we decided to go ahead and add it to our outreach program. We started with two every year, and have now progressed to three - fall, winter, and spring.
Gradually, however, something interesting happened. The community members who had been invited to come discussed their experiences with other families. In addition, students at school who had been present as hosts or helpers described their experiences with other students. Soon, others who had not been specifically invited by the organizers began showing up.
At first, these new “gate-crashers” made us uneasy. What if they did a bad job with the guests, or made a bad impression? After all, we had carefully picked people from the community who we were confident would be excellent representatives of the school. What if these uninvited Sudbury Valley folks would do the opposite - act in a way that drove visitors away? We were anxious, and for several open house events pondered how to keep the hosting group limited to those we had selected.
Then two interesting things began to happen. As an increasing number of community members showed up at our open house events, they felt more and more like pleasant social gettogethers, where everyone - visitors and parents and students and alumni - shared stories and experiences about life at school. Visitors could see for themselves the way our students interacted with them and with each other - and what they saw pleased them. Second, SVS parents who came were able to talk to each other in a leisurely manner, and thus reinforce their connection with each other and with the school community as a whole. And they too saw first hand how beautifully their children got along with each other.
The result was that Open Houses became a much more effective tool for encouraging newcomers to consider the school for their families, and a new venue for connecting members of the SVS community with each other. This was a gradual transformation that we had not anticipated, one which has made us look at these events in a new and welcome way.