From Hotel Hospitality to Home Visits, Schools Try It All to Get Parents Involved

The alliance between Georgia's Department of Eductation and the Ritz-Carlton is just the latest and loudest effort to make families at home on campus.

Schools are desperately seeking parent involvement since it has proved to enhance student achievement. (Photo: Yellow Dog Productions/Getty Images)

Sep 23, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Georgia's Department of Education recently made news when it asked the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, famed for its hospitality, to teach its schools to be more welcoming to parents.

In the past, communication between parents and teachers was relegated to a single meeting during each academic year, and perhaps a phone call or two if there was bad behavior to report. But the game has changed for the simple reason that parental presence and involvement in education has repeatedly proven to positively impact students' academic success, as well as social skills and feelings of self-esteem.

Nine times out of 10, students will do better because they see that the parents are involved in a partnership with their teachers, with their principals, and it shows that they care.During training sessions, the Ritz-Carlton adapts its methods of welcoming guests to the needs of Georgia educators. Schools have been encouraged to demonstrate appreciation when parents stop by and to make special name tags that indicate they are "parents" rather than "visitors." This can go a long way in making mothers and fathers feel less like interlopers at their child's school and more like valued participants.

"All organizations can benefit from providing good customer service," says Sue Stephenson, a Ritz-Carlton vice president, in her recent interview with the Associated Press. "...It is about service. It's about feeling welcome and valued. And that's what makes people go back."

The hotel chain is part of a broader education initiative begun in 2009 when Georgia established its own parent engagement program, now boasting an annual budget of $300,000 and three full-time employees.

But Georgia is just one of the places focused on building meaningful partnerships with students' families. Similar efforts are taking place around the country, in cities like Denver, CO, and Washington, D.C.

"Nine times out of 10, students will do better because they see that the parents are involved in a partnership with their teachers, with their principals, and it shows that they care," says Dr. Zaneta Ingles, an educator who has supervised multiple school reform initiatives to facilitate improved student performance.

She explains that in low-income, urban areas it can be particularly difficult to get parents to visit their child's school, but not because of a lack of interest. In single-parent households, where the mother or father has to juggle several jobs to support the family, a school visit can be a logistical impossibility.
In those cases, providing remote access to parents is key. In recent years, the Denver Public School system found itself struggling to engage with the Spanish-speaking families whose children make up a large percentage of its classes. To offer them a forum, it sponsored Educa Radio, a one-hour talk show that airs on a Spanish-language music station.

The program allows students and parents to openly discuss issues like applying for FAFSA, preventing teen pregnancy, and bullying. Since its inception, the schools say involvement on the part of non-English speaking Hispanic parents has risen dramatically at Denver's school-sponsored events.

Some schools in Washington, D.C. have boosted test scores, decreased truantism, and improved student behavior through regularly scheduled home visits. The Flamboyan Foundation runs a program that teaches educators how to engage with parents at their homes, which accomodates not only single-parent families but mothers and fathers who are still learning English and may not feel comfortable in a school environment.

"That gives parents the opportunity to feel free because they're in their home," Dr. Ingles says. "They could speak freely about their children and about goals they'd like to see their children achieve in the school year." During these visits, parents are given techniques to help their kids keep up with homework and practice basic skills like reading and math.

Many schools are also using centralized websites where parents can view their children's grades and communicate with teachers. Districts are making regular phone calls and even text messages. Such efforts allow parents to maintain a significant degree of involvement, even if it's from afar.

"You don't always have to contact a parent when the child is doing something wrong," Dr. Ingles says. "Contacting the parents when the child is doing something extremely well engages the parents in that learning process. And when children see that their parents are involved with the learning process, they're more engaged and they're more willing to take part in school activities, because they see that there is a true partnership."

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.