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 education 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 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.
"We know that family engagement makes a difference," Mapp said. "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.
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."