To inspire, schools take a page from Disney

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a mandatory orientation course for employees of the Montgomery school system. It is called Traditions, not Transitions. This version has been corrected.

In their ongoing quest to eliminate academic achievement gaps, Montgomery County educators are seeking help from the Magic Kingdom.

It is not enough, they realized, to spend more on poor children or to promote college-level classes for all if school employees are not fully committed to the cause.

So Maryland’s largest school system sent a delegation to Disney’s complex in Orlando a few years ago for a lesson in motivating employees from a company that specializes in making dreams come true.

“People need a reason to come to work. At Disney, we teach our employees the first day that we are here to create happiness,” said Bruce Jones, programming director for the Disney Institute, which coaches outsiders in the entertainment giant’s business methods. “What we talk about with educators is, ‘Let’s not forget why we got into this: These are real kids.’ ”

More than 300 school systems and charter school operators have undergone Disney training in the past two years, underscoring the rising influence of business practices in public education at a time when schools are under intense pressure to improve performance.

Many public educators oppose market-oriented policies that promote charter schools or tie teacher pay to student test scores, arguing that competition is the wrong solution for struggling schools. But there is a growing consensus that in quiet ways, businesses can help schools become more focused and efficient, particularly as budgets are shrinking.

School leaders are increasingly bringing on business-trained employees or consultants to work behind the scenes streamlining bus routes, cutting food costs or revamping hiring procedures.

In Montgomery, where students are scheduled to return to class Monday, school leaders meet regularly with senior executives from corporations including Marriott International, Lockheed Martin and accounting firm KPMG.

With 145,000 students and more than 22,000 employees, the school system rivals many companies in size and complexity.

Through the meetings, facilitated by the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education, school leaders have received training on cultivating a consistent brand and managing projects by setting clear goals, timelines and deliverables.

The help has been pragmatic rather than dogmatic, said Jerry D. Weast, who retired in June after 12 years as superintendent. “Business doesn’t have to sit around and accuse, blame and criticize,” Weast said. “Our businesses didn’t take that approach. They treated us like a client; they listened to our problems and helped us devise solutions.”

Montgomery officials consulted with “corporate diversity officers” from Kaiser Permanente to learn how they hire and retain minorities. And they worked with Booz Allen Hamilton to reorganize their curriculum department.

They also turned to business leaders for help building a workforce dedicated to social justice and eliminating achievement gaps. Research shows that teacher attitudes about children’s abilities, based on race and poverty, can become self-fulfilling. Many principals look for a no-excuses mind-set in new hires.

Businesses, which depend on employee productivity to achieve profitability, typically have more elaborate systems than do schools for finding, supporting and motivating their workforce.

In many companies, new employees go through a months-long process called “onboarding,” which immerses them in corporate culture. The first day is often marked by an orientation that introduces the company history and vision.

Until recently, new Montgomery school employees were typically given a stack of paperwork and an appointment to get fingerprinted, Weast said. “We didn’t tell people the aspirational things we want them to accomplish,” he said.

Executives from Sodexo and Deloitte, among other companies, shared their onboarding programs with school leaders and referred them to Disney, which is highly regarded for its staff training.

During their 2007 visit, Montgomery school officials learned that Disney employees are called “cast members” and that everyone in the company’s resorts and theme parks, from Mickey Mouse to janitors, is expected to “create memories that will last a lifetime.”

Disney’s first-day orientation, called “Traditions,” maps out the company’s history and vision statement and invites new employees to share their first Disney memory. They watch clips of old Disney movies, and some employees have been known to cry.

Jones, of the Disney Institute, said it’s important to encourage an emotional attachment to the company’s mission because — more than pay or benefits — that is what will inspire them “to go above and beyond.”

Montgomery’s new orientation course, introduced last year, makes clear the school system’s culture and expectations. Also called “Transitions,” it is mandatory for all employees, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and managers. Joshua P. Starr, the new superintendent, is scheduled to take the course in October.

Employees learn the history of county schools through demographic changes — from an enrollment that was 92 percent white in 1970 to one that is far more diverse, with nearly a third of students living in poverty.

They watch videos about stellar employees, including a facilities manager who started a mentoring program for struggling teens, and a Korean immigrant who was hired as a teacher’s aid and rose to become a principal.

During one session in Rockville on a muggy August afternoon, three dozen recently hired teachers and bus drivers were introduced to their new employer’s vision statement in evangelical call-and-response fashion.

“A high-quality education is a fundamental right for who?” asked a high-energy facilitator. “Every child,” came the muffled response. “For WHO?” the call came again. “Every child,” the group said, a little louder.

“That’s right,” the facilitator said. “Every child.”

The group talked about the growing global competition for jobs and why every student needs a good education for any chance at a middle-class life.

Later, Chris Lloyd, vice president of Montgomery’s teachers union and a chief architect of the training program, mapped out the ultimate academic challenge. His color-coded charts showed black and Latino students performing at the bottom and white and Asian students at the top.

He called on all the employees to help make that disparity disappear.

“We haven’t done it yet,” he said. “But, collectively, we will.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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