Meeting Prospective Parents in Virtual Parlors

Every year at SAR High School, we choose a theme for the year, which shapes programming and informal learning that takes place all year long, including our Beit Midrash program curriculum, sessions at shabbatonim and even during our Mac-A-Bee colorwar. Students learn and discuss sources around the concept, as well as explore practical applications to their everyday lives as Jews and citizens.

This year’s theme, inspired by the current pandemic, is achrayut, communal responsibility. Students have explored both the halakhic and ethical imperatives about our accountability towards those around us. Our first learning session was aimed at deepening our students’ understanding of achrayut by:

  • Helping students recognize that there are multiple communities in which they are a part and groups to whom they should feel responsible.
  • Encouraging students to think about how the decisions they make are both affected by and affect the various groups to which they are responsible.

Compared to so many of the concerns and roadblocks caused by the upheaval of Covid-19, needing to rethink a high school admissions process is certainly not the worst problem to have, and in many ways, it has caused our team to partake in what has actually turned out to be a positive creative exercise, all undertaken in the spirit of achrayut, and with a focus on recruiting new students while prioritizing the health and safety not only of our school, but of all our feeder schools and communities who have each gone to unbelieveable lengths to open their doors this year.

SAR High School is a co-educational Modern Orthodox school in Riverdale, New York. SAR Academy, our preschool through 8th grade arm, accounts for about half of our student body, while the other half is comprised of students from a range of Tristate area communities, including Westchester, Manhattan, Bergen County, Stamford, and Queens, among some others. 

In a typical year, we love connecting with so many wonderful families from many different elementary schools and neighborhoods. Suddenly, in a Covid-19 reality, the thought of welcoming students from 15+ different areas, something that used to excite and energize us, became a source of near panic. 

So, in a moment of startup culture for a 50-year-old school, we began to iterate. First, we planned a virtual open house, which allowed us to find ways to creatively showcase some of our fantastic staff in short departmental videos, as well as a live student panel and a really fun “Ruach Zoom,” which was a real glimpse into the warm and energetic way we kept our school community connected last spring when everyone was at home. We also built a new admissions website, including a virtual tour section with 360 degree shots of various spots around our building, as well as slideshows and videos. It was a great experience for us to go through our media archives and be able to display some of the most vibrant moments for prospective families. 

Another highlight of our admissions season has been virtual parlor meetings. In a more typical year, we host neighborhood meetings at homes of current SAR High School parents in six different areas. While being able to meet prospective parents in person, chat and answer questions in the personal setting of a family home is a hard experience to recreate virtually, we have found some great upsides. 

Since the meetings were virtual, we chose to consolidate some of our neighborhoods together, which allowed us to create additional evenings that were grouped together by theme. We held meetings focusing on First Time High School Families, Co-Curricular Offerings, and Student Support. Although we missed being able to greet families in person, many people commented that it felt very convenient to be able to attend parlor meetings from home, and it was also easier for families to join more than one meeting in order to gather information about our school. Going forward, we have been discussing whether we might be able to offer both types of meetings to give families maximal flexibility. 

Additionally, while these meetings are typically hosted by a family in person at their homes, with the host families generously opening their homes, setting up extra seating, providing light food and drink and mingling with prospective families, they don’t generally take an active role in the meetings themselves. In our Zoom parlor meetings, however, we asked our “hosts” to speak briefly about their experiences as SAR parents, and this added an unexpectedly warm and wonderful element to the meetings. In some cases, their child joined as well, and in many cases, families directed questions to the parents and were able to get honest and helpful answers from the current families. 

We feel proud of how we have shifted our approach, and we are pleasantly surprised at how many warm connections we have been able to make through our Zoom parlor meetings and interviews. We are continuing to creatively problem-solve and to plan new ways for our prospective families to get to know us. 

For many reasons beyond school recruitment, we are eagerly awaiting a day where people are healed and healthy, and masks and distancing are no longer our everyday norms, yet we are optimistic that even as we return to “normal,” we will hold on to many of the lessons learned along the way. 

Shifra Landowne is director of admissions at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY