Preschool teachers in Sioux Falls are learning about a program that helps students recognize gender differences and build relationships. It’s called the Sanford Harmony Program, and its champion says it started when he read the famous book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Tuesday the project’s namesake talks with teachers in Sioux Falls on their first day of Harmony training.
T. Denny Sanford is known as a billionaire businessman. He donates hundreds of millions, and that impact in South Dakota is most obvious in health care and research. Now Sanford is expanding into education – both with Build Dakota scholarship funding for college students and with a mission to help young kids address male and female behavior.
Sanford talks to preschool teachers in the Sioux Falls School District. He says the Sanford Harmony Program helps students realize differences and enables them to collaborate.
“It also eliminates a lot of the separation and segregation by genders that we have. ‘Okay, girls let’s do this today. Boys, let’s do this today.’ No, they are given projects to work on together,” Sanford says. “Each week after the introduction, ‘Okay, John, you and Sally are working this week on a project. You and Alice are next week’ and the like. And this works because they spend more time one-on-one with one another, better get to know each other and how the other gender thinks.”
Sanford says about 40,000 children have access to the program, and materials and training are free to educators. He says the goal is to impact entire families to reduce current and future rates of divorce, abuse, sexual harassment and discrimination.
Valerie Peters is the early childhood coordinator for Sioux Falls public schools.
"The skills that it teaches children are that diversity, that understanding gender. It also looks at problem solving and inclusion, and how do I make a friend and how do I keep a friend? And through all of that that really gives kids the foundations for being a really active and engaged part of a classroom, and that helps them to be a better learner," Peters says.
Peters says children’s needs are changing, and teachers must encourage social and emotional skills.
The Dean of Education at a South Dakota college says the Harmony program is good for children and their teachers. Donald Easton-Brooks says it works into a teacher’s already busy classroom schedule.
“Oftentimes you get some things that are so complex that it’ll go for about a week or two and teachers will put it aside because it’s too difficult to try to manage in the classroom,” Easton-Brooks says. “I think the thing that happens with this book that’s very developmentally appropriate is that, as you look at the books and the things that the teachers are reading on the back side, it’s probably three to four sentences. That’s something that’s very simple and very easy to work through rather than giving this huge scenario.”
Easton-Brooks says the curriculum materials focus on social skills and relationships, but they also encourage literacy and comprehension.
Among districts implementing Sanford Harmony, all Sioux Falls public preschoolers have access to the storybooks, songs and puppets from teachers trained in the program.