A groundbreaking partnership between the University of Montana and Missoula’s public schools was sealed on Wednesday with a $1.6 million commitment from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation.
The funding, which is the largest programmatic donation the foundation has ever made, will help transform Missoula County Public Schools for 21st century learning over the next three years.
Specifically, the money will finance professional development for the district’s preschool to 12th-grade teachers through UM’s School of Education.
The innovative partnership is officially called “SHAPE P-20,” which stands for “Schools and Higher Education Advancing Public Education Across the P-20 Spectrum.”
“I’m just so thrilled with the potential of Dennis and Phyllis Washington’s generosity,” said Alex Apostle, Missoula County Public Schools superintendent. “This is going to bring the university and the school district together in a way that has really never happened before.
“It’s going to give us the support to embark on the P-20 system. The university will be providing its expertise to the school district and will be involved hand-in-hand with what we are doing with keeping kids in school, Graduation Matters Missoula, our International Baccalaureate program, our health sciences academy and all the other things we are doing to enhance 21st century learning in our schools.”
The grant follows the Washington Foundation’s previous support of Graduation Matters Missoula, said Mike Halligan, foundation executive director.
“Given the professional facilities and resources available at the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences and the innovative steps taken by the board and staff of MCPS to ensure success for all students, it made perfect sense to bring both parties together to take the 21st Century Schools initiative to the next level,” Halligan said.
“As a foundation, education is by far our most important funding area, and because of Phyllis’ background in elementary education we have been looking for ways to move the needle forward systemwide for several years.”
Four years ago, the foundation supported Apostle’s then-new Graduation Matters Missoula, which has evolved into such a successful program for retaining and graduating high school students, it has become a model for the statewide program Graduation Matters Montana.
“We saw the success with that program, and with recent reports that show Missoula schools are top in the state with the best graduation rates and the lowest dropout rates in the state, we know this is an excellent model to work with,” Halligan said.
Over the next few years, the goal is to build a scalable model for schools that focuses on professional development of teachers, enhanced STEM education, language immersion for elementary and middle school students, full implementation of the International Baccalaureate Program and the development of skill-based academies, said Roberta Evans, dean of the College of Education.
“What is unique about this collaboration is that it is an opportunity to measure the impact of a whole variety of programs,” Evans said. “I view this as an incredible opportunity for us to launch scalable programs, test them in this environment and expand their usage across the state.”
“In that regard, I view this opportunity as a tremendous state resource,” she said. “Phyllis and Dennis Washington have been incredibly visionary in seeing ways their gifts impact education – and the funding for this collaboration is truly a great gift for the state of Montana.”
Calling it a historic circumstance, UM President Royce Engstrom said the collaboration likely will garner national attention for its multiprong approach for the betterment of the community’s youngest students to its college-age students.
“Rarely does a university enjoy the kind of partnership that we do with the K-12 public education system, and we have collaborated on a number of joint projects and symposiums,” Engstrom said. “This award from the Washington Foundation really will propel us, I think, to a national visibility for our high level of collaboration in the development of education.”
“I want to express deep appreciation for Mike Halligan’s work and for Phyllis and Dennis Washington’s support for yet another education commitment involving the university and our partners at MCPS,” Engstrom said. “These kinds of advances just don’t happen without interest and partners.
“We are so blessed to have people who can see the future and help us get there through their interest and generosity.”
Toni Rehbein, MCPS school board chair, was thrilled by Wednesday’s announcement from the Washington Foundation.
“I know this has been talked about and Alex has been working on this for a few years,” Rehbein said. “I’ve been holding my breath that it is real. We have done partnerships with UM, things like dual credit and education summits, and we have worked with them in meaningful ways.”
“Now, I think the sky is the limit,” she said. “In order to improve public education, we have to focus on staff development – and that’s what this is all about.”
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.