If you are the parent or guardian of a student in elementary, middle, or high school, chances are high that you’ve been invited to an open house. Is it important to go? And if you do, what should you do to make the most of it?
We asked the advice of University of Kentucky College of Education associate professor Lu Young, a longtime educator, former superintendent and chief academic officer who works closely with school systems across Kentucky and beyond to improve teaching and learning in their districts.
What’s the purpose of an open house?
Back-to-school open houses, much like open house events at one’s home, are designed to welcome students and families to the school, helping them begin the process of assimilating into the new school year and the overall school culture. For newcomers to the school community, open houses are extremely beneficial and go a long way to ease the fears of new learners (not to mention their moms and dads!). For older students, walking their daily schedules from class to class and figuring out how to open a locker and catch the bus are all ways to make them feel more confident about what they will encounter. Younger students benefit from the chance to see where their classroom is and meet the teacher with whom they will be spending many days and hours over the course of the coming school year. For families, open house is often their first impression, and school leaders want to make sure that impression is a good one.
Is it important to go, even if my child knows his or her way around the school?
Indeed! In addition to providing a warm and hospitable exposure to the school for new families, open house plays an important role for returning students as well. School buildings have been thoroughly cleaned and prepared for the start of school, and teachers have prepared their classrooms for a new group of learners. New teachers and staff have been hired,and new and returning families will have a chance to hear about important policy and procedure changes they will encounter in the new school year. Every successful school year begins with a successful induction and open house is one key to that success.
What questions should I ask, especially if the teacher doesn’t seem to have much time to talk to each person?
Teachers generally prepare and present critical back-to-school information with all students and families who stop by during open house. Knowing that teachers often have several families to meet and greet in the matter of only a few hours, they may not have much time to talk about individual student needs. In those cases, I would advise families to inquire about how to schedule time to meet with the teacher to engage in more specific conversations about their own children.
Every year, I see the PTA table with a sheet for volunteers to sign up, but I don’t have much time. Is my child missing out if I don’t sign up?
There are many families that cannot be involved as volunteers because of their own work schedules and other demands, so don’t fret if you can’t sign up on that list. Look for other ways to show your child that being connected to their school matters to you. Come to ballgames, concerts, school-wide events, and take advantage of any other opportunities you can find to be at the school.
If you are able to volunteer, though, we know that students whose family members volunteer at school are actually more successful and feel more connected to their school. Plus, teachers and staff desperately need extra hands on deck throughout the year, so your volunteer hours, in many ways, keep the school afloat.
Is there anyone else we should take time to see at an open house?
That’s a great question. Remember that there are lots of faculty and staff who serve in non-teaching roles in today’s schools. Take time to meet with counselors, administrators, extracurricular sponsors and coaches, and any other members of the school team who interact with your child.
What about middle and high school students and parents? With so many teachers at those levels, is there any benefit in trying to visit them all?
We know that as students get older, family involvement declines. Yet, middle and high school teachers have as much insight and information to share with their students’ families as elementary teachers. So, try to meet as many of your child’s teachers as possible and be sure you have their email contact information so that you can easily contact them as needed throughout the year. It is also important for families to learn how to access attendance and grade portals that they can use to track their children’s progress throughout the year on their own. Today’s digital tools offer families a wealth of information and access that their own parents never had.
Some might contend that the older the student gets, the MORE his/her parents should be involved. Fortunately, families of secondary students often get engaged with their school through extracurricular activities including sports, the arts, clubs, and community service events that bring them into the school throughout the year. Savvy school leaders recognize that any opportunity to engage with their students’ families is another way to build bridges between school and home and back again.
Any other advice?
Make sure that the school always has up-to-date contact information. We are finding that since families rarely have land lines anymore, and since cell phone numbers change frequently, it is increasingly difficult to reach parents and guardians during the school day. So, open house is a good time to make sure you have all the back-to-school paperwork turned in and that the school can reach you.
This isn’t really advice, but it might be worth noting that school leaders are also beginning to realize how important it is to “take the school to the community.” In Jessamine County, [where Young served as superintendent] individual schools would start the year with a bus tour, with faculty and staff members riding a school bus into the neighborhoods where their students lived and having a back-to-school celebration right there among their students’ homes. In Fayette County, many schools hold back-to-school rallies in neighborhood parks on Saturday mornings, when families, school personnel, and other community members can enjoy each other’s company in a less formal environment. The message here is that school leaders no longer believe that families should be expected to come to them; instead, family engagement is a two-way street. These kinds of “reverse open houses” are especially appreciated by those families who face barriers to being at school for a more traditional open house event – barriers including lack of transportation, irregular work schedules, lack of child care for younger siblings, language barriers, etc.
But whether the open house is at your child’s school, or in your neighborhood, it’s a good idea to be involved in whatever way you can, and it’s a great way to help your child – and you – start the school year on the right foot.