$1.5M Washington Foundation Grant Strengthens Partnership between UM and Missoula County Public Schools

At Missoula’s Big Sky High School, incoming students start classes and are immediately confronted with a mystery. They receive details about a fictional crime and must sift through clues over the course of the school year to crack the case.

“We had to analyze the [crime] scene and look for evidence,” says Big Sky student Bri Canning, a junior. “It was hard. But it was really interesting and engaging.”

Students study robotics

The scenario might sound like something out of a kids’ detective series, but it’s all part of the school’s Health Science Academy. From freshman through senior year, students in the academy learn how to explore problems in a hands-on way, through the lens of science and medicine.

“This program has expanded students’ opportunities to have relevant and rigorous experiences,” say Big Sky’s principal Natalie Jaeger. “It’s taking kids out of these defined boxes and encouraging interdisciplinary thinking, inquiry, problem-solving and international-mindedness.”

Many programs similar to the Health Science Academy, which uses an inquiry-based approach to learning, are made possible by a remarkable collaboration between the University of Montana’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences and the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS). Three years ago, with support from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, they launched SHAPE P-20, a set of initiatives aimed at transforming the relationship between classrooms, schools and student experiences from preschool to the doctoral level. SHAPE P-20 is a philosophy that’s reshaping education in Missoula – and may just change public education in America.

Thanks to a second $1.5 million grant from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, the program will change its name to SHAPE 2.0 and take a big step forward over the next three years, expanding the impact of a state-of-the-art education to reach more students.

SHAPE 2.0 refines the original initiatives to focus on programs that incorporate:

  • Cross-cultural studies and an understanding of global issues
  • STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math, plus arts integration)
  • Early intervention for at-risk toddlers and preschoolers
  • Universal design for learning environments and strategies that are flexible for students’ needs
  • Pioneering digital education
  • Professional learning communities that allow teachers to investigate and improve teaching practices

SHAPE 2.0 programs place the focus on learning, not testing, which empowers students and staff to create a globally competitive learning environment in every MCPS school.

Kindergartner with stethescope

The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation’s support will allow SHAPE 2.0 to offer solutions at multiple stages of a child’s education through initiatives like Kindergarten Readiness. SHAPE 2.0 also uses UM’s nationally-recognized college of education as a training ground for MCPS teachers, reducing the need for costly out-of-state training.

“Although everything we do is ultimately for kids, teaching also needs to be fulfilling for educators,” said Trevor Laboski, executive regional director for MCPS. “Those trained in various strategies, programs or approaches don’t just apply their new learning in specific classes. It impacts every student they teach and helps create opportunities for every child to succeed.”

An assessment report in April showed that the number of students served, teachers trained and schools impacted met and often surpassed the goals of SHAPE P-20. But the numbers are only a glimpse into a larger story.

“UM and MCPS have taken the lead in reimagining education,” said Mike Halligan, executive director of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. “The success of SHAPE P-20 proved that these are not just pie-in-the-sky ideas; they are practical ways to implement reform and impact generations of educators and students to come.”

“We have the opportunity to inspire teachers and re-engage students,” said Roberta Evans, dean of the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences. “By investing in the strong potential of our public schools, we are taking a radical approach to reform. And it’s already working in Missoula.”

Pictured above: (Top photo) Meadow Hill Middle School students design and program robots in their Project Lead the Way STEM curriculum. (Bottom photo) Hawthorne Elementary kindergarten students study biology and the human body.