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Early-Childhood Social-Skills Program Boosted by $20 Million Donation

CORRECTED

Could teaching preschoolers and elementary school students how to get along better lead to a drop in divorce rates later on? 

That idea led banking entrepreneur T. Denny Sanford to Arizona State University in Tempe, where the school of social and family dynamics bears his name. In 2008, he asked researchers there to create a program that could help improve relationships and understanding between boys and girls.

As researchers developed the program and tested it with teachers and schools, what came to be known as the Sanford Harmony program expanded its focus beyond gender to promoting understanding and tolerance among children of different racial and ethnic groups, and among children with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Now the program is expanding nationwide, thanks to a $20 million anonymous donation to San Diego-based National University announced this week. An additional $10 million from the program will come from National University's endowment, and the university will coordinate the effort.

National University and eight additional university partners around the country will help disseminate the Sanford Harmony program as well as train teachers through a professional development program to be called Sanford Inspire. The $20 million anonymous donation is the largest gift ever made to National University. The goal is to have the program in 2,000 schools by the end of the year. 

Sanford Harmony has programs for pre-K through 6th graders, and will be free to use. Michael Cunningham, the president of National University, said Sanford Inspire "is a grassroots effort that will go right to the teachers." The other universities involved in the effort—City University of Seattle, Long Island University, Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla., the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Touro College in New York, the University of Maine in Orono, the University of South Dakota in Vermilion and South Dakota State University in Brookings—are expected to introduce teachers to the free program. 

Sanford made his fortune as the owner of First PREMIER Bank and PREMIER Bankcard, which markets credit cards to people with poor credit. Sanford was also number 15 in a list of the top 50 givers of 2014, as compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy

Sanford has also been divorced twice, and his interest in promoting relationship-skills programs was born from that experience. "This is his passion," Cunningham said, explaining that Sanford's belief is that "the only way to stop the ills of high divorce rates is to start very early," 

Stacie Foster, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, said that the program focuses on "buddying up" children with others in the classroom, as well as units on empathy and critical thinking. 

"It doesn't just focus on behavior and thoughts. It's really a program about relationships, and the students not only learn skills but they practice them, with every other child in the classroom," Foster said.

Correction (6/6): An earlier version of this report indicated that T. Denny Sanford was donating $20 million to this effort. The $30 million for the Sanford Harmony and Inspire programs is coming from Sanford, National University and anonymous donations. 


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