School open houses are about two hours long, the length of a good movie or show. And like a movie, a lot happens behind the scenes to make sure people leave an open house with a feel-good message that they can’t get out of their heads.

It’s important to carefully plan an open house because a well-executed event sets the stage for a successful school year. The face-to-face meetings with families help build relationships, increase the visibility of the parent group, and develop a sense of community at school.

Plan for Success

A successful open house starts with a bit of planning before you start to roll out the red carpet. Whether your parent group plays a central role or just shows up to tag along, communication with administrators during planning is essential. Find out the principal’s main goals for open house, and talk about how your group can support those goals. If the principal wants to minimize congestion in the school entryway, have volunteers on hand to direct families to the appropriate classroom. Place your group’s table in a central location, but be sure that it won’t block access to hallways or rooms if a group gathers around the table in conversation.

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At many open houses, the parent group president will give a formal presentation. At others, the PTO or PTA simply hands out informational material. An open house is a good opportunity to collect volunteer sign-up forms, parent surveys, and membership dues. As you decide what activities to include, work to create an interactive experience and keep your focus on helping families connect to the school.

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Provide families with information they’ll need to plug in to the school community. Before the big event, update your welcome packet or create one if it doesn’t exist. Welcome packets don’t have to be lengthy, but they should include the contact information for the board or leadership of your PTO, an overview of the events calendar for the year, and specific ways families can participate or help with school events. Consider presenting this information in interesting ways, such as on refrigerator magnets or bookmarks.

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Look for ways to make life easier for families at your event. Selling spiritwear can be helpful to parents if it saves them from having to send T-shirt money with their child later. At Harvest Hills Elementary in Oklahoma City, Okla., the PTA offers one-stop shopping at open house, allowing parents to make a single payment for membership dues, spiritwear, school directories, and popcorn Fridays.

Offering concessions like baked goods or pizza dinners, often donated from local restaurants, can make your event more enticing. Providing a dinner option, even for a nominal fee, helps parents see the open house as an easy solution rather than another item on their to do list. Use our concession stand menu templates from the File Exchange if you’re selling treats.

As you make plans for the open house, take extensive notes on what decisions were made, how long it took to prepare signage or decorations, and how many volunteers were needed. Take photos of your setup to make future planning easier. Finally, record any ideas you have for improvement for the next open house.

Maximize Visibility

The open house is often your first chance to make a good impression on families new to the school, so think about it from their point of view. Make all volunteers and activities as easy to find as possible.

A walk-through of the school can help with the event layout. Is your table in a corner of a back hallway where crowds will block visibility? Will visitors be able to see your signs when there are people milling about? Tablecloth banners may look nice, but they aren’t effective if people can’t see them. You can increase your PTO’s visibility by securing balloons or pennants above your tables.

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Have something that draws families to your table, whether it’s free candy or a fun activity, like a photo booth with silly props. At Evans City (Pa.) Middle School, the PTO arranged for a professional photo booth at an open house for incoming 6th graders. If you have the technical capability, grab families’ attention with a slideshow or video of PTO activities from the previous year.

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Make your volunteers stand out with lanyards with name tags, matching T-shirts, or even funny hats and headbands. At Ross Elementary in Pittsburgh, Pa., which has a nautical theme, PTO volunteers wear captain’s hats and push roving carts through the hallways at open house instead of waiting for families to come to them.

Above all, make sure you recruit outgoing, friendly volunteers to convey your group’s message during the big event. The task of these volunteers is to draw people in, share the story of the PTO, and invite parents to get involved.

Get the Message Out

Now that you’ve planned a great event and prepared for maximum visibility, what’s your message? This is the script for your event, and it’s important that everyone knows her lines.

Make it personal. Ask volunteers to prepare one or two reasons why they chose to get involved and to highlight some of the group’s accomplishments, like new playground equipment or author visits. This is their “pitch,” a few sentences that cover what your group does and how parents can be a part of it.

Recruit warm, welcoming volunteers who aren’t afraid to ask people to share their contact information. Remind your volunteers that it’s important to keep the emphasis on parent involvement rather than fundraising. Tell parents that just an hour or two of volunteering can make a big difference for the school.

Have pens and clipboards with your forms ready and waiting. Make sure you have forms for specific events and a general interest survey form in case people aren’t quite sure what they want to choose.

If your school open house offers the PTO president the opportunity to address families as a group, it’s important to practice ahead of time, no matter how short the speech will be. If your president does better one-on-one, a membership chair or vice president with public speaking skills can be a good alternative. The speaker should plan to introduce herself, provide a brief overview of what the parent group does, and mention what the group’s main focus for the school year will be.

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Ready for the big night? Remember that every event, no matter how carefully planned, will have some hiccups. Take notes and accept suggestions, especially from the administration, on possible changes for next year’s open house. And after the event, don’t forget thank-you notes for the volunteers, teachers, and staff who helped make your open house a hit with school families.

Originally posted in 2014 and updated regularly.