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Sept. 28, 2012
Updated Oct. 12, 2012
After years of planning, remodeled learning spaces inside Northwest Missouri State University’s Horace Mann Laboratory School are a reality because of the generosity of a couple of Northwest alumni and their long ties to the laboratory school.
The Phyllis and Richard Leet Center for Children and Families, which houses preschool, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms at the laboratory school, opened with the start of the academic year this fall. The center is named for Northwest alumni Dr. Richard "Dick" Leet and Phyllis (Combs) Leet, of Gainesville, Ga., who gifted more than $100,000 to the Northwest Foundation last year to establish The Leet Endowment and fund the partial remodeling of Everett W. Brown Education Hall, which houses Horace Mann.
Northwest celebrated the completed project with tours and honored the Leets during a dedication ceremony as part of the University’s Family Weekend festivities, Saturday, Sept. 29. To listen to an audio recording of the dedication ceremony, click here.
The improved spaces provide more stimulating learning environments for children attending the laboratory school. They also reflect the ongoing mission and goals of Northwest’s College of Education and Human Services and the Department of Professional Education, which guide the operation of the Leet Center and Horace Mann.
“It changes who we are,” Horace Mann Principal Jill Baker said. “It changes our philosophy. It shows our children a lot of value. It also is a great conversation with our children about someone giving back, that a university gave them something and they gave back. Our instructional time will be better utilized because our spaces are better. It’s creating 21st-century learning opportunities.”
The remodeling project, which began June 4 and was completed in time for the first day of school Aug. 16, resulted in the preschool and kindergarten programs moving from the lower level of Brown Hall to a first floor space previously occupied by the school’s library and an auditorium before that. The library was relocated to the lower level, and a dining space was added adjacent to the new library.
The new classrooms for preschool children (ages 3 and 4) and pre-kindergarteners (ages 4 and 5), feature an inviting, home-like environment with natural colors and lighting. Learning centers are balanced with open spaces, and a fireplace in the pre-kindergarten classroom creates an intimate setting for teachers to read books and lead other activities. The preschool classroom also includes a kitchen and dining table, where the children eat a family-style meal each day. Both classrooms include lofts that offer secluded areas for students to read and participate in other individualized activities.
The Leet Center’s kindergarten classroom was relocated to an area occupied by a computer lab that was no longer being used. While it can accommodate up to 24 children and five practicum instructors, it, too, features improved learning spaces for structured activities as well as play. Large windows that had been blocked or covered now allow natural light to fill the space, and an iconic book house that was part of the former kindergarten classroom was moved to the new space.
The new classrooms are connected by a common hallway that offers students plenty of space to hang jackets and backpacks. Additionally, the hallway features display panels, picture frames and shelving where both Leet Center students and Northwest education majors practicing at the school can display posters and other artifacts documenting their development. At the front of the hallway, students, families and visitors are greeted by a bronze sculpture, "Cats Cradle," that was donated by the Leets.
All of the changes are welcomed in comparison to the darker, labyrinth of classrooms early childhood students formerly occupied in the lower level of Brown Hall.
“We believe in the three teachers – the environment as the teacher, the teacher as the teacher and the curriculum as the teacher,” Leet Center Director Cindy Scarbrough said. “We could do the curriculum and the teacher downstairs but in that environment piece, there’s only so much you can in a dark basement. Now, where there’s enormous windows and natural lighting, it says everything about the way we value the children.”
But Northwest and Horace Mann didn’t stop with the remodeled classrooms. To ensure the school retained its library, the lower level of Brown Hall was gutted and converted into yet another inviting space where Horace Mann students and Northwest students alike can find resources to enhance their learning.
During the summer renovation, B.D. Owens Library took temporary ownership of Horace Mann’s 12,000 books and audio visual materials. Library staff culled through the collection, repairing books and removing dated materials. The Horace Mann library’s original shelving units were moved downstairs to its new location, and cozy furniture, pillows and décor were added.
“It isn’t just the children I want to use this space, I want our college students to use this space,” Baker said. “I want them to come down and study. I want them to want to read a reference book in our library. What we’ve done is created a collection that serves not only our children, but our University students use this collection as much as anyone.”
Meanwhile, a lower level space previously occupied by the pre-kindergarten classroom was converted into a café area where Horace Mann students now eat their lunches. Campus Dining brings food to the facility each school day, and a head cook and dietetics students serve it to the children, ending a decades-old practice of Horace Mann students parading to the J.W. Jones Student Union to eat their meals.
Space was limited in the Student Union, Baker noted, and teachers were losing valuable instructional time leading the children between buildings for lunch, especially during the colder winter months when children have to be outfitted with coats, mittens and hats before going outdoors.
The new dining area features small circular tables for the children to gather and eat along with several other touches to create pride in the space and additional learning opportunities. Books stand on shelves throughout the dining area to encourage children to practice reading when they finish their meals. Horace Mann instructor Erin Oehler also had the students create self-portraits that are now plastered on the walls to instill the students’ ownership of the dining area.
“My whole focus in creating this space was I wanted them to feel like they are having lunch in a nice restaurant,” Baker said, adding that teaching manners is an important part of the concept. “We really wanted something that spoke to how you have conversations at a table to how you dine with someone else.”
The Leets began their lives together at Northwest, having met in a chemistry lab course. Dr. Leet, who grew up in Maryville, attended kindergarten at the laboratory school when it was housed in the Administration Building during the early 1930s and completed his chemistry degree at Northwest in 1948. Mrs. Leet, a Princeton native, completed her vocational home economics degree at Northwest in 1949 and then worked to put Dr. Leet through graduate school at The Ohio State University. Dr. Leet went on to build a successful career at Amoco Corporation and retired in 1991 as vice chairman and director.
The Leets have been steadfast in their commitment to Northwest and began investing in the University's mission in the 1980s when Mrs. Leet gave funds for a capital project at Horace Mann that provided adequate space for the kindergarten program. In 1988, the Phyllis Combs Leet Scholarship Fund was created for entering freshmen in the family and consumer sciences program. Dr. Leet, with Northwest chemistry alumni, also helped establish a scholarship named for his mentor, J. Gordon Strong.
Additionally, Dr. Leet was volunteer chairman of Northwest's successful inaugural capital campaign during the early 2000s. Both Dr. and Mrs. Leet served on the board of the Northwest Foundation, and, in 2005, Mrs. Leet led the creation of the unique centennial sculpture located in the east plaza of the J.W. Jones Student Union.
Since Horace Mann's founding in 1906, a year after the creation of Northwest, the laboratory school and its early childhood programs have had a lasting impact on the numerous children who attend the school as well as the Northwest students who lay the foundation for their teaching careers in its classrooms. The Leet Center serves 47 students, ages 3 to 5 while Horace Mann Laboratory School serves about 125 students in kindergarten through sixth grades. It also serves about 800 Northwest students from a variety of academic departments.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
215 Administration Building | 800 University Drive | Maryville, MO 64468