Schools put out their welcome mats Open houses allow prospective students, families to look around

November 04, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Because of an editing error, a Baltimore County school was incorrectly identified in an article about open houses in yesterday's Maryland section. It is St. Paul's School, an independent school in Brooklandville.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

The Sun regrets the errors.

It's a chance to be nosy. It's a chance to be seen. It's an opportunity to grab a first impression, get some questions answered, firm up a decision.

It's a school's open house -- and it comes in many sizes and styles. Most of them crowded.

Like soccer Saturdays and Halloween parties, school open houses are becoming a rite of fall for many families. From early October to late November, private and parochial schools -- and some publics, too -- invite prospective students and their families to browse among their curricula and look over the extracurriculars.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Any weekend is sure to feature at least half a dozen. The welcome mats were out yesterday at Park, St. Timothy's, Ruxton Country, Roland Park Country, Waldorf, the Institute of Notre Dame, Mount St. Joseph and St. Francis Academy.

Even Baltimore County's public high schools had open houses this fall. More are scheduled for the county's magnet schools.

Some parents scurry from one to another, fitting as many as three into an afternoon and six or eight into a season.

"It would be silly not to compare all of them to compare the good and the bad," said Carol Schulte, who was studying student exhibits at Park's lower school open house yesterday.

Looking for a kindergarten for her 4-year-old son, Schulte has visited several Baltimore County public schools, "the local Catholic school" and several independents, she said. "I guess I've probably seen more than most."

The open house is often a family's first step into a school search -- a time-consuming, nerve- wracking process for many.

In a convivial, get-to-know-us atmosphere, schools put forth their best students -- and sometimes their best china. They offer tours, slide shows, question-and-answer sessions, art exhibits, choral concerts and brochures. With private and parochial high school tuitions ranging from $4,500 to $12,000 -- more at boarding schools -- there's a lot of money riding on a school's first impression.

"Open house is a way to do some window-shopping -- a noncommittal way," said Sharon Boston, director of admissions at McDonogh School in Owings Mills. "It lets a great number of people come and visit."

More than 900 people, twice last year's crowd, visited McDonogh recently during its middle and upper school open house. Similar increases are reported at other area independent schools.

The boys middle and high school, Loyola Blakefield, welcomed 540 families last week, up about 10 percent from last year. Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson was host to about 380 families, 100 more than last year. And St. Paul's School for Girls in Brooklandville saw attendance double at its middle and upper school open house Friday.

Some people just want to see what a school that costs $10,000 a year looks like. But most are on serious educational missions.

"I'm looking to get my son out of the public school system," said Dawn Dubbs of Perry Hall, attending her first open house at St. Paul's. "I want that attention on education." She intends to visit at least two other schools, although St. Paul's is her first choice.

"Education is the most important thing you can give a child -- after health and love," said Schulte. "That's his whole future."

Some parents take the process a bit too seriously, perhaps. Notre Dame Prep's admissions director Molly Hubbard recalled one family at the recent open house that videotaped the school )) and the presentations -- and their child is 4. The youngest students the girls school accepts are sixth-graders.

Although an open house is a first look for many, it can also be a repeat visit for others, said Randie Benedict, director of admissions at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills. "There are people who are definitely in our application pool. There are people who are interested in knowing everything they can about our school, and so they take every opportunity we give them," she said.

"We keep coming back because we're still a little bit undecided," said Renee Connor, an Essex mother in search of a high school for her daughter, Natalie Bubczyk. The two were in the jammed auditorium at the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street yesterday, still narrowing their choices.

Each open house, like each school, has a slightly different feel and format, but there are always welcoming remarks by the school head, a run-down of admissions' procedures, a tour and opportunities to talk to teachers, students and parents. Most schools let students be their tour guides.

"They are who the students and the parents want to talk to," said Hubbard of Notre Dame Prep. "We've tried several different methods, but the student-driven [open house] works best."

Somewhere amid the balloons and refreshments, the critical questions of openings and admissions criteria arise.

With most private schools enjoying full enrollments and record numbers of applications, anxiety runs high. "Some people get frightened at open houses," said Hubbard. "They see all these people and they say, 'My child doesn't have a chance.' "

Although many people who attend open houses never apply, the crowds do translate into far more qualified students than the schools can accommodate. At McDonogh, for instance, 240 middle school prospects applied for 40 to 50 openings last year, said Boston.

The anxiety is unfortunate, said Hubbard, but understandable.

In fact, it is almost expected. When St. Paul's Headmaster Robert Hallett asked his open house crowd how many were anxious about the selection process and only a few people raised their hands, he asked again, and a more realistic number of hands went up.

Pub Date: 11/04/96

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