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Disney Holds Up School as Model for Next Century

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The Walt Disney Company, which created Tomorrowland and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, is about to build what it says is the public school of the future.

Just south of Walt Disney World, and west of the inexpensive motels and T-shirt shops on U.S. Route 192 that bask in the shadow of the giant resort, Disney's real-estate-development arm is building a 5,000-acre community near here called Celebration.

It is the company's first project to include permanent residents.

While Walt Disney himself once touted EPCOT, part of the Disney theme-park complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., as a model city where residents would show off the cutting edge in technology and urban design, the company's first real residential development will be a neo-traditional American village "inspired by the main streets of small-town America and reminiscent of Norman Rockwell images,'' according to a Disney brochure.

But while the community may evoke an earlier era, the children of Celebration will attend an unusual public school intended to "serve as a model for education into the next century,'' the brochure says.

Under a recently approved agreement with the Osceola County school district and Stetson University, a private institution in DeLand, Fla., Disney plans to build and help run a state-of-the-art public school at Celebration.

In addition to the school, which will be owned by the school district, Disney will build and own an adjacent teaching academy designed to attract educators from across the state and country for a variety of professional-development sessions and experimentation in the Celebration school.

Disney "is interested in a great school for Celebration,'' said Deborah A. Claesgens, a manager for the Disney Development Company. "This project would really focus Disney's role nationally in education.''

Moving Into Education

The Celebration School and Teaching Academy project is the latest in a series of moves by the show-business giant to increase its involvement in education.

Michael D. Eisner, the chairman and chief executive officer of Disney, has stressed that the $8.5 billion company is seeking not only to entertain children with cartoons, movies, and theme parks, but to educate them as well.

Among other developments:

The company has proposed Disney's America, a historical theme park to be built near Haymarket, Va.

The park, which would open in 1998 if it survives intense opposition from some historians and Virginia residents, would be more educationally focused than Disney's other attractions, featuring such things as Civil War battle re-enactments.

The company has proposed a planned residential community around the theme park and has said it will donate property for public schools.

  • While Disney has marketed educational films and videos for years, the company recently formed a separate group called Disney Educational Publishing. The unit will develop curriculum materials to bring "the magic of Disney to learning both at home and at school,'' the company says.
  • Last year, the corporation gave serious consideration to buying a major stake in Whittle Communications.

Although Disney declines to comment, it reportedly considered an investment of as much as $500 million in the Edison Project, Whittle's education-reform venture, and Channel One, the classroom news show beamed to more than 12,000 schools.

At the time, Whittle was trying to raise funds for its plan, since dropped, for opening hundreds of private schools under the Edison Project. Disney would have gained control of Channel One. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1993.)

"Disney has recognized that to make entertainment educational is the way to go,'' said Ronald Grover, a business journalist and the author of The Disney Touch, a 1991 book about Disney's corporate success under Mr. Eisner.

"They want to be a player in education on the information highway,'' added Mr. Grover, who argues that the company's interest in education is motivated by its corporate bottom line.

"Kids are certainly one of their major markets, and they have identified that education is a way to get to them,'' he said.

A spokesman at Disney's headquarters in Burbank, Calif., declined a request to interview senior executives about the company's educational projects.

20,000 Residents Expected

The Celebration school project has been under discussion for about six years, said Chris Colombo, the superintendent of the Osceola County district.

"The most exciting thing to me is the potential for teacher education at a school that is going to have resources not normally found at a public school,'' he said.

Celebration is slated to have a town center, churches, stores, offices, a golf course, parks, and homes for up to 20,000 residents.

Disney considered hiring the Edison Project or Education Alternatives Inc. to run the new school, but it ultimately decided on the current concept for managing it, Ms. Claesgens said.

The pre-K-12 school should open by fall 1996. It essentially will be a countywide magnet school until Celebration fills up with permanent residents, which could take several years. Even then, 20 percent of the school's enrollment will be open to students from throughout the district, officials said.

The school "will be on the cutting edge of what the experts tell us schools should be like,'' said Larry Rosen, a professor of education at Stetson who also is the director of the teaching academy.

Disney has donated $11 million in land, architectural-design costs, and other support for the school, plus $9 million for the teaching academy and "operating enhancements'' for the school.

The school district is putting up $15.5 million to build the school.

A board of trustees made up of one representative each from the district, Disney, and Stetson will make recommendations about how the school is run.

For example, both private partners are working with the district to choose the principal in a nationwide search.

The teaching academy, meanwhile, is being supported by a consortium of state colleges and universities in Florida.

"Teachers could go hear about cooperative learning, then go into the Celebration school and see it taking place,'' said William Vogel, the assistant superintendent for personnel in Osceola County.

Those involved with the project said Disney does not plan to compete with the Edison Project and E.A.I. in the budding market for privately managed public schools.

"We're far more interested in trying to disseminate teacher education materials electronically,'' Ms. Claesgens said.

Loss of Autonomy Feared

The unusual governance setup for the Celebration school worries Martha Anderson, the only member of the Osceola County school board to vote against the project.

"I just don't think the marriage can work without the school board giving up its autonomy,'' she said. "I think it is going to be a series of one conflict after another.''

Ms. Anderson suggested that district officials have been eager to associate themselves with the cachet of the Disney company.

Disney has long owned property in Osceola County, but the Celebration development is the company's first major project there.

Most of Walt Disney World, with its three major theme parks--the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center, and Disney-MGM Studios--and its resort hotels, time-share villas, and other attractions, lies to the north in Orange County.

"We in Osceola County have suffered an image problem,'' Ms. Anderson said. "Some feel this will enhance our image.''

To Richard Foglesong, a professor of politics at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., the discussions surrounding the Celebration development sound familiar.

Mr. Foglesong, who is writing a book about Disney's presence in the Orlando area, said that Walt Disney and other company executives proposed EPCOT in the 1960's as a residential community until they realized that such residents, with their right to vote, could diminish the company's control over the Florida resort.

EPCOT Center eventually was built as a sort of year-round "world's fair'' theme park but without residents.

"In some ways, Disney has shown that an autocratically controlled property owner can produce better land planning,'' Mr. Foglesong said.

"Now they seem to want to test whether an autocratically run corporation can produce better education than a democratically organized school board,'' he said.

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