Welcome -- Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, students show their school spirit by holding specially made signs. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame High School

Welcome -- Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, students show their school spirit by holding specially made signs. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame High School

By Dorothy K. LaMantia | Correspondent

With the excitement of going back to school just beginning to fade, high schools around the Diocese are looking ahead to next year and gearing up enthusiasm through their yearly open houses – a time when prospective students and their parents visit a high school to take a closer look at the place that could be the next step in their education.

During October, these open houses provide Catholic high schools an opportunity to showcase the venerable benefits of Catholic education and their academic programs.

“Parents like meeting with students directly,” said Maryanne Bedford, director of admissions in St. Rose High School, Belmar. “The one-on-one between [a student] tour guide and family allows them to experience the school and what we have to offer – and to get to know someone in the school more personally. There is no script. Kids learn from kids, and what they say is genuine.”

Bedford was among the administrators and planners from four diocesan high schools to speak about the importance of open houses, their format and their impact on the school and the families who attend.

Open houses typically run two or three hours on a Sunday afternoon or a weekday evening and introduce parents and their children to the building,  academics and extracurricular programs – including athletics, arts, community service and a wide variety of clubs – that will be part of the student’s daily experience.

Teachers from every academic department, guidance counselors, administrators, current students and parents are on hand to answer visiting parents’ or students’ questions, ranging from course expectations to financial aid, and to defuse the anxiety that accompanies any child’s preparation of taking the next educational step. 

Current students serving as ambassadors accompany a family on a tour of classrooms, science labs, the library, chapel and athletic field, where guests can see how well Catholic schools are keeping pace with educational demands of the 21st century.  

For example, said Katelyn Venuto, director of admissions in Holy Cross Academy, Delran, “In our science labs, our guests will see a student working on an experiment. They will also see that every student at Holy Cross has ownership of a new laptop in the classroom.” 

Innovation is also forefront in Donovan Catholic, Toms River. “Students will see STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] projects in our science labs and visit Griffin TV, our television studio,” said the school’s principal, Dr. Edward Gere.

In some schools, a parent of a currently enrolled student joins in the walk to provide a parent’s perspective, too.

“We are here to partner with families,” said Laura Sarubbi, director of enrollment management in Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville. “One parent said to me, ‘The minute I walked in the door, I felt at home.’”

The presence of student ambassadors and parents allows families to make connections to each other, which some consider to be the crowning touch of an open house, school officials agreed.

Because of the student ambassadors, “Middle-schoolers can start to visualize themselves in the environment, so it’s not so overwhelming, and to start to see themselves in their high school career and how they will make their mark on the future,” Venuto said. 

“Incoming parents praise the open house because of the positive energy and enthusiasm of our student ambassadors and teachers,” Gere said. “For many, it seals the deal.”

The concerted mission of the school’s professionals, its parents and students cultivates the sense of family, the administrators said, which becomes the event’s most effective selling point.

“We see it this way: they’re bringing their family to meet ours,” Venuto said. “It’s important because this will be their home, where they will spend most of their time.”

 As the schools seek to enroll students from both Catholic and public schools, they also extend the invitation to non-Catholics.

“We welcome students of other faiths. It enriches student experience,” Gere said. “It is our response to the tone set by Pope Francis, which stresses the universality of the Catholic faith and its welcoming nature.”

Sarubbi agreed. “The teachings of Jesus Christ permeate all we believe: the hard work ethic, putting others first, respect for self, being of service to each other. Our students learn that here. Non-Catholics want their kids to be part of this community and tradition.”