- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota’s two largest universities are now part of a nine-school national collaborative effort to expand an early-childhood education initiative first funded by philanthropist T. Denny Sanford.

The University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University announced their participation Tuesday on the effort, which will train teachers on a program targeting the social and emotional development of children in preschool through sixth grade. A $20 million anonymous donation to National University in San Diego, which is leading the collaborative, will allow for the expansion of the Sanford Harmony and Sanford Inspire programs at schools nationwide.

The Harmony Program encourages students to work together to foster empathy and cooperation and is the only part of the effort implemented in South Dakota.

“The program is unique in that it starts at the early-childhood and primary school level, but with the long-term goal of being able to overall improve academic performance, to increase positive attitudes with school, to increase empathy and to reduce gender stereotyping and aggression in general throughout the student’s life,” said Nicholas Shudak, USD’s chair of the division of curriculum and instruction.

Some South Dakota teachers, for example, will read children stories about “Z,” an alien who “isn’t a he or a she - just a Z,” according to the curriculum. The stories are meant to teach children to appreciate similarities and embrace differences as a way to encourage mutual respect.

The Harmony Program is expected to reach over 2,000 schools across the country, including some in Sioux Falls, Vermillion and Beresford, and the Boys and Girls Clubs in Brookings and Flandreau. The clubs provide summer-enrichment programs to children who are at risk of falling behind academically.

USD and SDSU have received grant money from National University to train the teachers at participating South Dakota schools starting this summer. USD expects to train about 65 teachers; SDSU doesn’t have a specific number of teachers yet.

The Harmony and Inspire programs were developed initially by Arizona State University. The expansion of the programs is being led by National University’s Sanford Education Center, established in 2014 through a donation from South Dakota-based businessman Sanford. National University also is making a 50 percent matching contribution to the $20 million anonymous donation it received to spearhead the scale up.

The other participating schools are City University of Seattle, Long Island University, Touro College in New York City, University of Central Florida, Nova Southeastern University in Florida and University of Maine.

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