Covert Elementary School showcases social and emotional learning

$100 million donation spurs nationwide expansion of Sanford Harmony


Meryl Goodman asked a room of second-graders at William S. Covert Elementary School on June 6 to share ways that classmates can work together.

“Include everyone,” said Mara Davidson.

“Fabulous,” Goodman answered, prompting another student with her eyes.

“Make sure everybody has fun,” Ben Carbonara said. Goodman nodded, and said, “Mmmm, good.”

Then she called on Molly Batkin. “Taking turns sharing ideas so that everyone gets a chance,” Molly said softly but confidently.

The exercise showcased a sample of the teachings of Sanford Harmony, a free social and emotional learning program that Covert implemented four years ago. It teaches children in kindergarten through fifth grade about diversity, inclusion, empathy, critical thinking and peer relationships. It also focuses on the four steps of problem-solving — stop, talk, think and try — which Molly said she uses in everyday life.

“It’s not like you have to solve the problem first thing,” she told the Herald. “You can stop, think about solutions, and then try them. If they don’t work, you can just keep on trying again and again until you solve it.”

Thomas Denny Sanford, 82, a billionaire philanthropist, sat next to Goodman, smiling at the students, who sat cross-legged around a colorful rug depicting a map of the world. Minutes earlier, on the front steps of the South Hempstead school, Sanford — who has helped fund Sanford Harmony since its inception — had announced that he would give an additional $100 million to the nonprofit National University System, which runs the program.

Sanford Harmony was first introduced in elementary schools in 2008. The donation will help the program, which is currently used by 1.5 million children, to reach 20 million children nationwide by 2023. Long Island University, led by President Kimberly Cline, is working with the National University System to roll out the program in the Northeast.

“Kids go to school, and teachers are typically taught in schools of education to teach subjects,” Sanford said. “This is way beyond it. This is in the heart of the kids.”

Covert and Riverside elementary schools were among the first schools in the state to try the program four years ago. It is offered to students in 31 of the 32 New York City Department of Education school districts and 22 of the 127 districts on Long Island. Rockville Centre Schools Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said the program is easy to implement and “becomes life in the classroom,” adding that Sanford Harmony would be added to the district’s three other elementary schools by September.

“We are not only proud of having it,” Johnson said, “but proud to be one of those who will be able to speak to the world and let them know this needs to spread.”

Children in the program are introduced to Z, a genderless green alien who comes to Earth on a spaceship and tries to learn how children get along with one another. Teachers give the lessons daily to kindergartners, and students in grades one through five do Sanford Harmony about three times a week.

Goodman, a special-education teacher at Covert since 2001, said that creating a positive atmosphere in school is crucial to fostering learning. “If a child doesn’t feel good about themselves, if they’re worried about who they’ll play with at recess, if they’re afraid they don’t have friends,” she said, “then no matter how innovative and creative our teaching may be, they’re not going to be able to excel and reach their true potential.”

Sanford, a native of St. Paul, Minn., built a career in sales, marketing and distribution before establishing Contech Inc., a Minneapolis-based manufacturing company. In 1986, he bought the United National Corporation in Sioux Falls, S.D., which is now First Premier Bank.

Through his foundation, he has donated more than $1 billion, including $400 million to the Sioux Valley Health System, whose major initiatives include developing children’s clinics worldwide and whose research center focuses on finding a cure for type I diabetes.

His $100 million expansion of Sanford Harmony is the largest donation ever for social and emotional learning, according to Michael Cunningham, chancellor of National University System. “Denny, we call him the zero man,” Cunningham said during the news conference at Covert, “because if you give him a goal, he’ll add a few zeros to the end of it, and he’ll take off a few of the years in which you have to do it.”

Covert Principal Darren Raymar said that the values taught by Sanford Harmony are especially evident during recess, when every child seems involved and engaged. “There’s something very powerful about it,” he said of the program. “Especially some of our tougher kids that may have some issues socially. They’re really embraced by everyone.”

Back in the classroom, Goodman told students to do their special handshakes with their designated “buddies.” Molly Batkin and a friend did a high-five and a low-five before making a heart shape with their arms and saying, “Best friends.” Cooper Goldspiel and his buddy, Alan Vitelli III, did three hand slaps before blurting out, “Cheeseburger.”

“It’s making sure everyone has fun,” Cooper said of Sanford Harmony. “It’s really important to be kind and nice.”