Broward public schools get a boost from Disney on customer relations

Faced with stiff competition from charter schools, Broward’s school district is looking to improve its brand-name reputation and customer service skills —with a little help from Mickey Mouse.

The Disney Institute, a consulting and teaching firm housed within one of the world’s most successful companies, has turned its attention to Broward. The school district hired Disney late last year, and is now in the midst of an extensive self-assessment process that it hopes will ultimately make its schools a more pleasant place for students, parents, and district employees.

Broward is spending roughly $40,000 on the Disney training, and that figure could go up.

“The goal is not to make us look like Disney,” said Sharon Airaghi, Broward’s chief service quality officer, at a School Board workshop Monday. Instead, it’s “what is our version of Disney, for Broward County schools?”

For example, Broward has learned about Disney’s intensive new employee orientation sessions — a three-day process that serves as an introduction to the company’s core values, while also weeding out those who aren’t fully committed. Broward doesn’t even have a orientation video, Airaghi said, and may want to consider adding that in order to give new employees more direction.

The Disney-fication of Broward schools began in December, when Airaghi and one other district administrator traveled to Orlando for a three-day seminar. Following that, Disney visited Broward, and conducted an anonymous employee survey (receiving more than 1,500 responses) as well as more than 20 small-scale employee focus groups.

Disney is expected to submit its findings in a written report in the coming months, along with various options for how Broward can proceed. It’s at that point that Broward may decide to spend beyond the $40,000 it has already paid, should it decide it needs more assistance.

Disney spokesperson Jamie Langdon offered only a brief written statement about the Broward contract, writing that the company had been hired “to evaluate their organizational culture and customer service,” and that this work is currently underway.

Disney’s customer-focused philosophy (and attention to detail) are legendary in business circles, though employees haven’t always appreciated the hyper-specific policies, which at times even regulated whether male employees could grow facial hair.

Broward School Board members are solidly behind the Disney contract, with board member Nora Rupert calling the Disney Institute “fabulous” on Monday.

There are other customer-service initiatives that Broward is pursuing without outside help, such as a revamping of the school district website, and the creation of a Broward Schools smartphone app. Both those projects should be unveiled by the start of the upcoming school year, and parents will also be able to get alerts from the district via text message, as opposed to the usual electronic robocalls.

Though much of the inspiration for Broward’s rebranding is the competitive threat posed by charter schools, district leaders say they are also responding to the recommendations of a parent task force that pushed for improvements in the areas of customer service and communication.

In turning to Disney, Broward joins a long list of previous institute clients, including airlines, hospitals, and — in hundreds of cases — school districts. Though the Disney Institute represents only a tiny sliver of the company’s global empire, the specialty training service has been steadily growing. Broward had to request its first training session months in advance.

Among the testimonials on the Disney Institute’s website is one from the school district in Elizabeth, N.J., which praises the training for instilling a teamwork-centered culture where employees such as security guards and support staff feel more important and valued — after all, they’re often the first school staffer that parents encounter.

But not everyone in Broward thinks Disney’s help is needed. Parent Patricia Taime on Monday shouted at School Board members that the training was simply a waste of money. If the school district has employees who aren’t attentive to student and parent needs, she said, those people should simply be fired.

“Hire people that know how to treat people the right way!” Taime said. “I just think it’s a little sad that the school system has to be trained on basic customer service.”

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