092713 um students sd

University of Montana students walk around the Oval between classes on in September 2013.

SOPHIE DANISON/Missoulian

The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation donated $2.4 million to the Montana Digital Academy on Thursday, looking to help students boost their test scores and better prepare for college.

The latest gift comes on the heels of a pilot project carried out at the University of Montana, where 86 percent of participating students improved their remedial math skills to the point they qualified for higher-level university courses.

“The whole focus on academic readiness is a big deal to both Dennis and Phyllis and our foundation,” said Mike Halligan, the foundation’s executive director. “The better prepared we can have our kids for college directly aligns with our mission and goals.”

Funding from the Washington Foundation will make Montana students the first in the nation to test the new EdReady curriculum on a statewide basis. The program will run for three years.

Offered through the Montana Digital Academy at UM, the courses help students boost their scores on placement exams, reducing the amount of remedial help they require when entering college.

And that, experts say, saves students in tuition costs down the road.

“We can’t wait for the three years to roll out and see how many kids we’ve helped,” said Halligan. “There are going to be tangible results in a month. There are direct results we can measure.”

Nearly 28 percent of students attending a Montana college need remedial courses once enrolled. But last summer’s trial project showed promise, when 60 students took the math curriculum remotely.

Of those students, 86 percent increased their test scores. Another 41 students avoided taking 49 remedial courses totaling 151 credit hours.

When combined, students saved $30,000 in tuition and fees by avoiding remedial work.

“Some students who enroll in college have a significant gap from the last time they took a math class in high school to the time they arrive on campus,” said Denise Juneau, state superintendent of public instruction. “EdReady is a promising tool that we can use to help get those students up to speed.”

The Montana Digital Academy is part of the state’s K-12 system. It works with school districts across the state to expand educational offerings with a mix of core and elective courses, including college-prep courses offered online.

UM President Royce Engstrom called the gift transformative.

“We will be the first state in the nation to offer the EdReady program to all secondary and post-secondary students, while also developing a national model that will guide future implementation across the country,” he said.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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