The University of Montana announced this week it is receiving a $10 million gift that will augment cutting-edge programs in education and create more modern learning spaces.

Already, the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences has incorporated natural light in upgraded spaces and a "tree house," a seating area on the third floor that puts students almost in the midst of the large pines of Memorial Row.

The college has a preschool "lab," called the Learning and Belonging Preschool, which offers support for children and families, preparation for teachers, and support for clinical research.

"I feel like we are at the cutting edge in terms of what we're doing in the field," said Kristin Dahl Horejsi, director of the preschool.

The donation from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation will build an addition for the college. The gift makes the foundation and Washington family the largest donors in UM history with $48.5 million given to date, according to the UM Foundation.

"We could not be more proud to have Dennis and Phyllis Washington as our allies in building an exceptional college for education and human sciences," said UM President Sheila Stearns in a statement. "They epitomize the Montana ethic of working hard, earning success and giving back to build a stronger Montana."

The money will pay for an addition of 35,000 square feet and three stories, with the following:

  • A 500-seat auditorium that will be the largest on campus,
  • Clinical labs for the counselor education program,
  • New spaces for the Montana Digital Academy, and
  • Two more Learning and Belonging Preschool classrooms with observation rooms, seminar spaces, and playground.

In a statement, Dean Roberta Evans said the college is poised to become a national leader in education and human sciences.

"With the support and guidance of these generous and passionate friends of our college, our programs will continue to grow and support high-needs fields through the development of qualified professionals who will create a lasting, positive impact on our local community, the State of Montana and our nation," Evans said.

On a tour of the college this week, Associate Dean Susan Harper-Whalen pointed to the clusters of people in the building and noted the resources will support more than construction materials.

"Bricks and mortar are so much more than that," Harper-Whalen said.

The preschool, for instance, offers services for children and families, prepares teachers to work in the field, and supports research. The addition is scheduled to be complete at the end of December 2018, and she said the donation helps put UM on the map.

"I think we will have the most vibrant clinical and research center in the region, certainly in the state," she said.

***

Peter Knox, spokesman for the college, said the infrastructure will benefit all programs: Communicative Sciences & Disorders, Counselor Education, Teaching and Learning, Educational Leadership, and Health and Human Performance.

But he said the largest component of construction will be the Alice Lund Instructional Auditorium, or the "ALI Auditorium." Lund was an educator and UM alum, and UM announced last year a $5 million gift from the Alice Lee Lund Charitable Trust for the space.

The auditorium will seat 500 people and have the latest technology available to not only the college but the entire campus, he said. Knox said it will have adaptable space and modern broadcasting equipment in order to support conferences, distance instruction, and other events of a variety of sizes.

"That's going to be a unique instructional space," Knox said.

***

The funds also mean the nationally accredited preschool will be able to expand from a single suite — with a classroom, observation room and seminar space — to three total suites.

"The evolution of this program has been nothing short of miraculous due to the incredible support that we've had," Harper-Whalen said.

The preschool started 80 years ago, and she said it's among just 5 percent of nationally accredited early childhood programs. She said it has one mission in three parts.

The cornerstone is the program for children and families, including a curriculum that's led by the child, she said. The preschool also supports teacher preparation, and the construction comes at the same time the college is offering three new early childhood education degrees. It also provides clinical education and research opportunities for students across campus, including those in speech pathology.

"We're excited about some of the interdisciplinary research that we've generated," Harper-Whalen said.

***

Already, communal spaces in the upgraded parts of the college feel modern, with a lot of natural light, a coffee shop in the lobby, and different study corners with new, movable furniture.

Twedt Hailes, senior director of development, said the earlier remodel at the college was completed in 2009. She said UM is fortunate to have help from the Washingtons because the college is able to stand out to students with its a beautiful environment.

In other words, not every school of education in the country has the resources to have state-of-the-art facilities.

"It is an attractive area to be learning in, and I think that that helps a lot in terms of reaching out to our students who might be interested in the fields," Hailes said.

This fall, enrollment jumped to 1,863 from 1,445 last year, with an estimated 30 percent of the students from out of state, and the bulk from Montana, Knox said.

***

Knox said the money also will help make more space for programs that are bursting at the seams, like the Montana Digital Academy and the counselor education program.

The Montana Legislature created the Montana Digital Academy in 2009, according to UM. It offers online courses and educational opportunities to students across the state, and it gives them an opportunity to graduate on time.

Kate Stober, senior writer and editor for the UM Foundation, said the $10 million gift is among the largest gifts in UM history. The record came last year, a $24 million donation from airline magnate and investor Bill Franke and his family.

When the Washingtons' contributions to other institutions in the Montana University System are taken into account, Stober said their cumulative giving hits more than $50 million.

Additionally, Phyllis Washington takes ownership of the college, said Harper-Whalen: "She takes great pride in not only the structure of it, but the programs that are being offered here. So we're fortunate that she feels such a great affinity for us, and we're so thankful for her generosity."

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian