1992 Partnership Optimas Award Profile The Walt Disney Co.

November 1, 1992
A great artist isn't always great at everything. Walt Disney, founder of The Walt Disney Co., for example, was one of those people who could make the simplest of drawings—like Mickey Mouse —virtually come to life.

As a student, however, the young Disney's skills weren't so magical. He had a great imagination and creative intelligence in subjects like math, but he was less than brilliant. Somehow, however, somewhere along the way, someone believed in him—and that helped young Disney believe in himself.

In spite of his educational shortcomings, Disney, who grew up in Kansas as the son of a farmer, traveled to Hollywood in 1923 with little more than a pen, some drawings and a few clothes, ready to make his mark on the world.

As Disney realized the dream of bringing his artistic ideas to life, he made a commitment to helping other young people believe in their dreams, by giving educational opportunities to the local communities of which the growing Disney empire was a part. His philosophy? "I think of a child's mind as a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly," he said.

Throughout its history, The Walt Disney Co. has made many connections with education, through both students and the educational system. Because of the company's outstanding efforts in bringing the expertise of individuals in business to students, Personnel Journal has chosen The Walt Disney Co. to receive its 1992 Optimas Award in the Partnership category.

The Disney organization's numerous U.S. education outreach programs cover a wide spectrum, from traditional to modern. For example, Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, is the sponsor of a work/study program through its human resources department. The program helps students gain college credit for working during the summer. In Florida's Walt Disney World, The Disney Crew uses puppets and interactive teaching techniques to tell young students about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. (For more information, see "Disney's Programs Offer a Wide Range of Support.")

Most of the company's educational efforts focus on students in their formative years—when they're in elementary and middle school—but significant efforts also are made to address the educational needs of older students. Whenever possible, Disney uses entertainment techniques to communicate an educational message, such as that presented by The Disney Crew.

"That philosophy goes back to Walt Disney himself," says Shelley Lauten, director of Florida's Disney University, which is the company's training and development function within the human resources department. "Disney had a belief about education—that it should be fun and that entertainment and education aren't necessarily two separate entities."

Perhaps the most unique, hands-on educational endeavor that the company sponsors is the Challenge Program, which is a nontraditional, dropout-prevention program that enables high school students to work and go to school on-site at Walt Disney World, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. This program operates under the direction of Disney University.

The Challenge Program helps keep kids in school.
The average dropout rate for high school students in Florida is a staggering 38.5% (fourth-highest in the nation), which means that approximately four out of 10 students in the state don't earn a diploma. That's bad news for students in the area, and also for the area employers that are faced with hiring from among that group.

Recognizing this education challenge back in 1989, Florida's Orange County School Board suggested a partnership between the local school system and Walt Disney World, central Florida's largest employer, having 35,000 employees. The idea was to identify a few students who were at risk of dropping out of regularly structured high school programs, and give them the opportunity to complete their high school education, while also allowing them to work.

Besides needing to earn money to support their families (these students often are the primary breadwinners), many young, at-risk students already have children of their own. "These students are the babies who have babies," says Delores Bruton, manager of special projects at Walt Disney World. Bruton, who oversees the daily maintenance of the Challenge Program, explains: "These are the students who are the statistics. They're the kids who need opportunities or have been deprived of opportunities."

The Challenge Program was created to support these students in two important ways. "The purpose of the program is to find a way for these students to remain in school and work toward their diplomas, but still have a job and earn some money to take care of themselves and their families," says Bruton. Students go to school for four hours a day, then work for four hours.

Not only do the students earn a paycheck for the hours they work, but they also receive a complete benefits package, as do any other full-time cast members (Disney's term for all of its employees). "So it's complete employment, not just a part-time job," says Lauten.

In addition to students' needing to earn money, Lauten cites another reason for high dropout rates: boredom. "If we can provide the economic means to allow them to continue school, we've taken away one barrier. If we give them a reason and a purpose to go to school, and show them some connection between what they're learning in school and their work life, that's even better," she explains

How this program helps the business is best realized in the long term, rather than in the short term, according to the program managers. The program isn't a major source of personnel. "It's a very small number of students," says Lauten. "So overall, it doesn't really have a major impact on our business. But I think in the long term, it benefits us because we know that if we can connect the high school graduation to skills related to employment, we're going to have better employees in the future."

The Challenge Program is a true partnership with local schools.
At-risk students are identified by a counselor in their home or magnet schools, and then are referred to Disney's Challenge Center, located in the Disney University. Currently, there are openings in the program for 42 students each year.

The program runs for the usual nine school months, although some students attend summer school classes and continue working during the summer. These students, however, must find their own transportation because the school system only provides during the regular school term. Because of the work component, the majority of the students in the program are at least 16 years old, the minimum age that students must have attained to be eligible for the Challenge Program.

Once students are accepted into the program, they usually don't have much contact with their home school, except through teachers and counselors whom the school system provides. The Challenge Center is their school.

In almost every way, the Challenge Program is a true partnership. Disney and the local school system provide the personnel and materials to make the program work.

Disney provides:

  • Space (The Challenge Center)
  • Lockers
  • Tables, desks
  • Jobs
  • Supervisors
  • Program coordinators
  • Graduation ceremony.

Disney University also has a Learning Center, complete with computers and computer instructors, that's available to students in the program.

The county school system provides:

  • Teachers
  • Counselors
  • Materials (like books and handouts)
  • Transportation
  • Diplomas.

Students go through the interview process for their jobs just as other cast members do. "They're placed wherever the opportunity exists," says Bruton. But they usually aren't working together in one area. "I don't think it's a wise idea to cluster these students; then they'd form their own little network. The whole purpose is for them really to get out there and stretch themselves."

Each weekday morning during the school year, students are bussed to Walt Disney World from their home school. The bus drops half of the group off at the Challenge Center. The bus transports the other half of the students to the Magic Kingdom (one of Walt Disney World's three theme parks), where they work at a job in food and beverage, merchandising, custodial or ticketing.

One of these students is Nicole Vinson, who's 19 years old and has been in the Challenge Program for a year. Vinson's ride on the bus each weekday morning takes about an hour and a half. She arrives at the Challenge Center at 7:45 a.m. and attends classes from 8:30 a.m. to 12:05 p.m. She works from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. at her job in the merchandise area of Tomorrowland—her first employment experience handling money. "I love my job," says Vinson.

Vinson says that she also appreciates the opportunity to complete her high school education. In August, Vinson was given the Challenge Program's Student of the Year award for her academic achievements. "I'm a good student now," she says, "but I've come a long way. My teachers helped me through this because they understand me. They're the best teachers I've ever had. You can always talk to them; they're very supportive."

Vinson says that this award means a lot to her, especially because she had dropped out of high school twice before coming to the Challenge Program. "Before, I didn't realize what a high school diploma was worth. Now I realize that you can't get anywhere without it," she says.

Vinson hopes to graduate next May. After that, she plans either to go to a technical school or to become a model. "I haven't really decided what I want to do," she says, although she's aware that she has more options.

The school makes it easier for students to succeed.
One of the benefits for students in the Challenge Program is its lower student-to-teacher ratio. At the Challenge Center, this ratio is about 5 to 1, while the state average is 17 to 1. There are four teachers (English, math, science and art) in a classroom of 21 students, so students get more one-on-one attention.

Because of their similar circumstances, interaction between the students is different than it would be in the regular school setting. "I think these students identify with one another; they form their own networks, which is important—they function as a support team for one another," says Bruton. "It also gives them some inspiration to achieve their goals."

Speakers are invited from various operating areas of the Disney organization to speak to the students about their experiences in the work world. Often they are human resources professionals, talking about interviewing skills, but individuals from such areas as horticulture, photography and marketing also have talked to the group.

The speakers share their thoughts on a personal level with the students. "One thing we stress to these students is that, although it may appear to them that life has been just a bowl of cherries for everyone else, we each really do have our own struggles," says Bruton.

The Challenge Center teachers also try to help students connect what they're learning in school with their work life. "If they're studying English, we try to show the connection between why they're learning English and why it's important to write and speak well," says Lauten. "In our profession—because we're in entertainment—it's an easy connection to make."

Also from a practical standpoint, the program is designed to make it easier for students to succeed. "I think they're afforded opportunities that they wouldn't have in a regular school structure, and, more importantly, these students don't have to worry about finding their own transportation to and from work," explains Bruton. This is an issue for most cast members, because there's no public transit system available to Magic Kingdom workers and visitors.

When students complete the academic requirements outlined by the county school system, they participate in a graduation ceremony hosted by Disney. This year, the ceremony was held at a Walt Disney World convention center with all the pomp and circumstance of any other graduation. Graduating seniors wear caps and gowns and are given graduation certificates by Disney. (Diplomas must be awarded by the county school system.)

"The students feel such a sense of reward, and they're so proud of their accomplishments," says Lauten. She remembers when a father of one Challenge Program student spoke to the group after a graduation ceremony and said that he never thought his son would turn his life around. The Challenge Program had done that for his son, he said, because it gave him a purpose.

Some students need extra help on the job.
"These aren't typical employees," says Lauten. "Most of them have low self-esteem or never really worked before." These are special challenges for the supervisors. Students get a special orientation session before starting work, and some need extra assistance beyond that. For example, Lauten remembers one student who never had used a broom before. "The supervisor literally had to teach the student how to use a broom," she says.

"You have to treat these students differently because they're special," adds Lauten. "For whatever reasons, they weren't motivated, so we have to help them maintain good motivation on the job." These issues are discussed back in the classroom.

A full-time counselor is provided by the Orange County Schools to help coordinate between the students and their supervisors. This person also helps develop a strategy to turn around a student who isn't doing well in school or is having problems on the job.

Of particular importance to Disney is the company's appearance guidelines and attendance standards, which are watched closely by supervisors. "If there's a student who's beginning to have problems with appearance or attendance, then the counselor helps work it through as part of his or her education," says Lauten. Challenge Program cast members are reviewed just as any other regular employee: once after the first 90 days; then once a year after that.

There's no special orientation program provided for the supervisors, but Challenge Program coordinators do meet with them to advise them of the students' schedules and any special concerns. "Sometimes, it isn't easy," says Lauten. "I have to give the supervisors in the operating areas a lot of credit because they work really hard with these kids." Challenge Program teachers are aware of problems that the students are having on the job and try to work with them to solve those problems.

One logistical fact that makes Challenge Program cast members different from other employees is their specific time schedule, which doesn't leave room for variation. They have a bus to catch at the end of their four-hour shift. "The supervisors can't rely on that group of employees to work any overtime or to do anything outside the realm of their schedule," says Lauten. "That's a challenge, but the supervisors have worked through that well."

Once they graduate, students usually are given the opportunity to continue as full-time cast members at Walt Disney World. "We're hoping that this will continue on as a career for many of them, but that isn't a guarantee on either side—they don't have to stay, but, if they don't, we hope that it at least will get them connected to the work world," says Lauten.

"Some of the students go onto bigger and better things, just as students in regular high schools do," says Bruton.

Currently, students aren't given scholarships to attend college once they complete the Challenge Program. Bruton says that Disney may consider this a future option.

Since 1989, 153 students have been in the Challenge Program. During the first two years, 16 students graduated from the Challenge Program. In 1991, 20 graduated. Approximately 25% of the students who have been in the program, transition back to their home schools for one reason or another. Once they begin, about 50% stay to complete the program.

"If you consider that 90% to 100% of these students would have dropped out of school altogether, that's quite successful," says Lauten. "For us, it's a small step," she continues, "but it still means having a few more people who will be better employees for us in the future."

Of those students who have dropped out of the program, nine still work either full- or part-time in the Magic Kingdom.

Programs demand time more than they need money.
Walt Disney World employs 35,000 (67%) of the company's U.S. cast members. It's almost a city within a city.

"About 35,000 cast members live here, work here, play here, send their kids to school here and go to church here. We feel a great obligation to provide a certain quality of life to the community in which our employees work and live," explains Holly Stuart, manager of community relations for Walt Disney World. Her office manages all of Walt Disney World's business and education programs except the Challenge Program.

"No matter how big or small your company is, you have a gift to give. If your company is small, it probably doesn't have the resources that we have here, but it certainly has valuable gifts that the community can use; you just need to give them," says Stuart.

Programs like these don't have to cost a lot of money, Stuart explains. Mostly they require only time. "We have a saying here in the community relations department about giving money: It's the least creative way to make a donation," she says. Lending time and expertise is often more important than giving money, according to Challenge Program experts. Stuart adds, "You have to recognize the gift and you have to give it—and you have to engage."

If your company is small, it may not have the resources we have here, but it certainly has valuable gifts that the community can use.

Bruton agrees. "This is definitely something that I would recommend to other businesses, because I feel that it's a way of giving back to the community in a big way," says Bruton. For those individuals worried about the potential costs of these programs, she has words of encouragement. "The cost isn't exorbitant for us," says Bruton. "The only thing we provide is space. There are a number of ways to get around having to spend a lot of money."

More than a gift, the program's managers look at Disney's educational efforts in terms of how it affects the organization's future employee pool. "We look at Workforce 2000 as an issue and read all the doom-and-gloom statistics about how we have fewer opportunities to be choosy about the type of students and the employee base from which to draw, but we still want the students to be as skillful as possible," Bruton explains.

"If many of them drop out of school and have low self-esteem, that isn't advantageous to us in the long run," Bruton continues. "We try to affect education in a variety of ways at Disney, and this is one small way. I think that we need to find more ways for business to get involved, helping kids in the educational process," she adds.

Lauten says she hopes in the future that Disney can expand the program to include more students, possibly even making some openings for cast members' children who may be at-risk of dropping out of school. In addition, she says that Disney may add a mentor component to the Challenge Program, as exists in the Compact Program, another successful education initiative at Walt Disney World. (See "Disney's Programs Offer a Wide Range of Support.")

Programs are a learning experience for Disney, as well.
Many of Disney's other businesses also sponsor education programs. For example, at Disneyland, the human resources department takes an active role in education by the sponsorship of such activities as the College Plus program and Work Exposure Day.

College Plus is a two-year program managed by the college relations department, which brings approximately 450 students a year from colleges in many parts of California to Disneyland for the summer to get work experience. The students also attend classes on-site during their first year in the program. During the second year, they work at Disneyland.

From there, many of the students participate in the organization's internship/management training programs in the areas of hotel restaurant or retail. For the past six years, Work Exposure Day has been a yearly event that brings about 60 outstanding high school students from local school districts to shadow a cast member for a day.

"We find that it's also motivational for our work force to host those individuals," says Bill Ross, director of human resources at Disneyland. In the process, cast members also gain valuable information from a prime potential candidate group: 17- to 18-year-olds. "It helps us glean a lot of information for our management cast members in understanding those individuals," says Ross.

What we have found is that anytime you're able to bring academics and industry together there will be mutual learning.

Another program that human resources sponsors through its employment services department is called Job Search Strategies. In it, cast members who have graduated from high school or college recently go to local schools to discuss with students their experience on the job and to explain how their education relates to their work.

During the same meeting, human resources representatives discuss resumes and interviewing techniques. They also hand out a job-search guide called Search magazine, which Disneyland's Disney University developed.

"In the last couple of years, we've seen a greater involvement of business in education," Ross explains. "What we've found is that anytime you're able to bring academics and industry together, there's going to be mutual learning taking place," he says. "We've found also that both groups have something to provide to each other. The benefit to the student is tremendous," Ross explains.

"There's no question that we want to interact and communicate with the population from which we typically recruit, although we know that we aren't going to be able to hire all of the people we touch," continues Ross. "In the long term, if we can develop good, solid workers to incorporate into our society, that's important as well."

Although not every student that Disney touches with its education partnerships starts out with the clean slate that Walt Disney once talked about, once these individuals have been touched, the words that are written on that slate probably are more hopeful.

Personnel Journal, December 1992, Vol. 71, No. 12, pp. 58-68.