Hotel teaches Georgia educators about hospitality

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.”

Georgia is a national leader in finding innovative ways to build family-friendly schools, according to Karen L. Mapp of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She 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.

A key strategy is the partnership with 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.

On a recent weekday, a dozen or so principals and support staff traded a classroom for a day at a Ritz-Carlton hotel 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 Web site. 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. “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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