Sanford donates $100 million to expand education program

June 4, 2018

Denny Sanford is donating $100 million to bring a social emotional learning program to every child in the United States.

“I think this will be my biggest legacy,” said Sanford, who is known for his donations in Sioux Falls to Sanford Health and many causes that affect children, including education.

Sanford is passionate about this one.

Called Sanford Harmony, it teaches lessons and strategies around diversity and inclusion, empathy and critical thinking, communication, problem-solving and peer relationships.

“The program works,” Sanford said. “I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s going.”

It began more than a decade ago when Sanford, who is divorced, was inspired by a speech he heard in Sioux Falls from relationship counselor John Gray, the author of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”

The two met for a couple of months, and Sanford asked him to create a program to improve relationships among children and help prevent the sorts of issues he was addressing in adults.

“He said … you really need significant research,” Sanford said.

That led to a connection with Arizona State University, which spent eight years researching and developing the program at what became the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.

“It came out much to my delight,” Sanford said. “And it’s very successful.”

Then Sanford met Michael Cunningham, chancellor of the National University System, a network of nonprofit educational institutions that serves students from pre-K through doctoral level.

It currently reaches more than 1.5 million students. The new gift will expand that to 30 million students and allow the school to take the program worldwide. It’s the largest donation in the system’s history.

“It’s significant for all of mankind,” Cunningham said.

“I know that’s a bold and a big statement, but I think it’s just a testament to Denny’s charitable giving philosophy. He wants to have a significant social impact. It means a lot to us to be the face, if you will, and the distributor and the organization that is helping advance his program throughout the country and throughout the world.”

Efforts already are underway to customize the program in Vietnam, Mexico and Brazil. The goal is to expand it to Europe, China and India.

Sanford Harmony recently was evaluated by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education, expanding on initial research that indicated reductions in stereotyping and classroom aggression and increases in pro-social behavior.

At a classroom level, Cunningham and Sanford have seen it.

They recently toured a public school in Brooklyn, N.Y., where altercations or disruptions were so common in the hallways that guards accompanied students.

“For as little as 15 minutes a day, which the instruction takes, teachers are finding out there’s more collaboration, cooperation, respect and inclusion among the children. It’s manifested by how they teach each other and interact with each other,” Cunningham said.

In the Brooklyn school, teachers noticed kids have stopped taking each other’s books and materials, fighting has decreased, and guards are no longer needed.

“The effects of this program are preventative medicine as opposed to corrective,” Sanford said. “It’s not physical health. It’s social and emotional health. They’re disoriented in terms of relationships with one another. We see that result with bullying and the episodes with guns. That is not the primary intent of this program, but it’s an added benefit of the program.”

The program is provided to schools for free.

In South Dakota, there are 81,000 students age 5 through 11, Cunningham estimated, and the goal is to reach at least 70,000 of them by 2023 in all areas of the state and on Native American reservations.

“It’s paramount to Denny to make sure we get this training in those classrooms, and it will have a manifestation in their high school and college careers and when these students become adults in the business world.”

About $170 million has been donated to the National University System since 2014 for Sanford-related programs, primarily from Denny Sanford, though also from anonymous donors and the system itself.

Through the latest donation, the Sanford Harmony Research Institute will be created with an inaugural class of fellows from leading research institutions and will deliver annual research projects and findings with the potential to impact millions of lives. Scholarships and awards will be provided to help teachers further their education while specializing in social emotional learning and to recognize excellent teachers.

The gift will make the program available to every public school and nonprofit organization that serves children in pre-K through sixth grade. It also will make the program accessible through new, innovative approaches such as online learning and game-based apps. It supports expanding Sanford Harmony globally by adding, in addition to the current Spanish language edition, editions in Vietnamese, Mandarin and Portuguese. The program also will expand its alignment with after-school programs, child care facilities and developing parent-specific tools to reinforce the lessons, as a result of increased demand from students’ families.

“What’s exciting – and what we weren’t planning on – is children are going home and talking to their parents and getting them involved,” Cunningham said. “It’s a home run. It makes your heart just glow in these classrooms where you see the impact these programs are having.”

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Sanford donates $100 million to expand education program

Denny Sanford is donating $100 million to bring a social emotional learning program to every child in the United States.

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