Typically, the fall is a busy time for school fairs, but not this year.
Seton Catholic Schools canceled in-person high school fairs this semester to prevent spreading the coronavirus. In response, the school hosted a three-day virtual Catholic high school fair where 10 area Catholic high schools linked with potential students and their families via Zoom.
Students looking forward to high school were able to virtually meet with staff, view classrooms, hallways, cafeterias and gymnasiums, and learn about classes and extracurricular activities specific to each campus. Information was also provided on the School Choice program, scholarships and financial aid.
The free online fair began ran Monday, Sept. 28, through Wednesday, Sept. 30. Each evening consisted of three 45-minute sessions, one per high school. Schools represented over the three nights included Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, St. Thomas More, Pius XI, Divine Savior Holy Angels, Messmer, St. Joan Antida, St. Lawrence Seminary, Marquette, St. Anthony and Dominican.
Generally, 20-40 families attend each of the three to four area in-person high school fairs, said Paul Hohl, director of school engagement.
“Usually two things happen at the grade school level. We invite area Catholic high schools to visit with students, usually seventh- and eighth-graders, during a resource time,” he said. “We also sponsor area high school fairs across our network with usually eight to 10 high schools present for students and families to visit within a school cafeteria or gym. We also publicize Catholic high school open houses and shadowing days.”
Turnout for the virtual fair on Zoom brought 87 participants to the St. Thomas More Fair, with an average attendance of 50 for each of the other schools.
“Compared to the traditional in-person fair, we are probably over double the attendance,” said Hohl.
Hohl’s role involves working at strengthening partnerships with schools and families, schools and parishes, and schools and community partners.
“With COVID, I also work with implementing specials, religion, and social-emotional learning across the network,” he said. “I also lead counseling efforts, which led to the Seton virtual High School Fair idea.”
With no expectations of attendance or acceptance of a Zoom fair, Hohl said the event went well, considering the limitations of the virtual platform.
“We are glad that families are still invested in the choosing-a-high-school process and most of us are getting used to participating in the new Zoom world,” he said. “We also have hopes to add more options for students through an equity lens. We hope students and families will learn of more opportunities through the Zoom fair experience and be more open to multiple Catholic high school options. Our hope is that a student can discover a great high school fit through learning about it on the Zoom high school fair, perhaps one that they would not have even considered before.”
While the virtual high school fair platform was successful, Hohl and other staff agreed that they missed the human touch of the in-person high school visits. It is especially effective when the schools bring high school students to Seton Catholic Schools for the presentation.
“Our students and families really love seeing the grade school graduates come back as high school students and share their stories and experiences,” said Hohl. “However, attending a fair from home has been a great opportunity. No worries about transportation, childcare or other distractions for families. I think the high schools have loved the opportunity to reach out to 11 elementary schools in a short 45-minute block of time, without traveling across the city during evening hours.”
Prospective students were provided an overview of clubs, advanced placement and college credit courses, electives, fine arts programs and servant leadership programs. While it wasn’t the same as visiting the campus or shadowing a high school student, middle-schoolers did seem to get a full grasp of the high school offerings, said Hohl.
“I believe our virtual fair was successful in putting our students in the mindset of what their high school careers will look like and how to make a great choice for them,” he said. “I was very pleased with the Zoom etiquette shown by our students. They followed the request for staying muted and using the chat box for questions 100 precent of the time. In the future, I will have them sign in with their name and school so we can monitor interest at the local grade school level. We always worry about teenagers’ online appropriateness and have heard about the ‘Zoom Bombing’ stories.”
Next year, Seton Catholic Schools will offer school fair sessions in Spanish, as Hohl said the high schools have the capacity to again offer equitable opportunities for all families. Most of the eighth-grade students speak English, but many of their families do not.
While it is too soon for feedback, Seton will offer feedback opportunities to participants. Additionally, they will be monitoring what high schools their approximately 330 Class of 2021 eighth-graders attend and compare the numbers with data from the past four years to determine the effectiveness of the virtual fairs.
“We struggled with tracking the Class of 2020 high school choices with the shutdown in March and want to correct that experience this year,” said Hohl.