ATLANTA — A line of Ritz-Carlton employees stretched down the hotel hallway, and applause erupted as a group of public school educators walked by.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. uses the "wall of applause" to show appreciation — a central message during a recent training session with Georgia education officials working on a broad initiative to create family-friendly schools. With research showing a clear link between parent engagement and student success, education officials say it's essential that parents are involved, and they must make sure families feel welcome at schools that can sometimes feel like fortresses.
"Often people will say 'thank you' or 'we appreciate you,' but there's that old adage of actions speak louder than words," said Michelle Sandrock, who oversees the state's parent engagement program and coordinated the recent training at The Ritz. "It's one thing to have someone say 'thank you,' but it's another to have someone stop what they are doing, come over and clap for you."
The Ritz-Carlton has long been known for rolling out the red carpet for its guests, with a dedication to customer service and satisfaction. It's those lessons that educations officials hope to bring from the hotel to the classroom.
"All organizations can benefit from providing good customer service," said Sue Stephenson, a Ritz-Carlton vice president who oversees the company's community outreach programs. "It's not just running a luxury hotel. It is about service. It's about feeling welcome and valued. And that's what makes people go back."
Georgia is a national leader in finding innovative ways to build family-friendly schools, according to Karen L. Mapp with Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Mapp said most states don't have a coordinated effort on the state level. In 2009, the Georgia Department of Education established a parent engagement program, which now has an annual budget of $300,000 and three full-time employees.
"They are exposing a lot of the districts across the state to best practices, and they are incentivizing best practices," Mapp said. "We know that family engagement makes a difference. The question is how do we cultivate more of it?"
A key strategy is the partnership with The Ritz-Carlton, which has signed on as a sponsor for a state contest designed to recognize schools making gains and provide special training that can be shared with others in their district. Statewide, 1,600 public schools that serve a large share of low-income families are eligible for the competition, which honored three schools in 2012 and four this year.
Research shows that when parents are involved with school staff, students earn higher grades, perform better on tests, and have better social skills and behavior, according to Mapp. There's also a link to students finishing high school and heading to college.
Sandrock travels to national conferences to talk about Georgia's efforts. She tells a story about a parent who received a visitor badge every time she went to her child's school.
"The problem is that I'm not a visitor. I'm a parent, and this is my school too," Sandrock said.
An easy fix was to print badges labeled "parent" instead of "visitor." Now, as teachers walk by, they may thank the parent for being involved, and the parent feels appreciated. It may seem minor, but Sandrock says there are endless small steps schools can take for a more welcoming environment.
That's where The Ritz comes in. On a recent weekday, a dozen or so principals and support staff traded a classroom for a day at one of two Ritz-Carlton hotels in Atlanta.
It's the first year that representatives from each winning school were brought in for hands-on training at the Ritz. The company helps fund the awards program and donated meeting space, food and rooms to educators who had to drive in for the training.
The Ritz-Carlton plans to make the program available to all schools on its website. Among the session's lessons: making things easy for parents, listening, and asking parents how they want to be helped.
"When you think about The Ritz-Carlton, you think about them rolling out the red carpet," Sandrock said. "There are a lot of parallels between what we were doing and what the Ritz has been showing us is worthwhile to do."
Mark Maynor, principal of Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy in Gainesville, experienced the lesson of "never saying no" when, during a tour of the hotel, he asked to see the kitchen and was told: "We would love to show you the kitchen. However, you are not quite dressed to go in there."
"He never said the word no, and I felt fine with it because he had explained it," Maynor said of the answer. "It's about keeping people at the center and taking care of them 100 percent."
Since a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in December, schools also have been taking steps to improve security. Those measures must be balanced with creating welcoming environments, and how the safety measures are communicated is important. Sandrock said one school implemented a buzzer system, but also put up a sign that said, "Welcome. We are glad you are here. For the safety of our students, please ring the doorbell."
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