The Phillips 66 Billings Refinery pledged on Wednesday to donate $750,000 over three years to support enhanced science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in Billings School District 2 elementary and middle schools.
After the donation's public announcement during a morning ceremony at Orchard Elementary School, 120 Jackson St., SD2 officials didn't even try to hide their elation.
"We are so excited that we could dance," said Superintendent Terry Bouck.
Ray Rigdon, the refinery's manager, said that the donation comes from Phillips 66's Signature Community Initiative, in which it partners with local groups and nonprofits to address targeted, defined issues within the community.
"It makes a meaningful investment ... to solve specific community problems with meaningful results," he said.
Bouck said it does not appear that SD2 has ever received a private grant donation of this size.
The Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools received a $2.7 million estate gift to establish the Dewey J. Hansen and Helen Cothron Hansen Memorial Fund, an endowment for Billings' three public high schools and Laurel High to strengthen core classes.
The money will also fund a technology training center for teachers, students and community members that is expected to open in the fall at Orchard.
The grant was given to the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools, a nonprofit group that supports SD2 that worked through the application process for six months before getting word at the end of June that it would receive the money. Officials from Phillips 66, SD2 administration, foundation staff and Gov. Steve Bullock attended a Wednesday morning presentation ceremony at Orchard Elementary, announcing the gift.
Bullock said that STEM education plays an ever increasing role in students' lives as technology advances and becomes more integral to the workforce and that it's the job of government, business, community and education leaders to ensure youth are challenged, interested and educated on STEM.
"We do have to recognize that for many of our students, it's not only about reading, writing and arithmetic," he said.
Most of the money will go to support SD2's involvement in Project Lead the Way, a comprehensive K-12 national program and curriculum that aims to boost students' STEM education and problem-solving and communication skills.
More than half of the first-year money — $200,000 out of $276,000 — will purchase robotics kits and supplies for fourth and fifth grade classes in five SD2 pilot elementary schools — Bench, Beartooth, Miles, Arrowhead and Washington — for Project Lead the Way during the 2014-15 school year.
Money will also go toward purchasing iPads for those schools to use as teaching tools in the classroom.
The technology lab, which will cost about $57,000, will feature new technology with the aim of educating teachers on how to use it in the classroom. Students will also be able to use it throughout the day, and it will be open to parents and other members of the community.
"It really is a game-changer for our students and for bringing STEM education into our schools," said Krista Hertz, executive director of the Education Foundation.
In 2015 and 2016, more than $470,000 will go toward implementing Project Lead the Way in seven more elementary schools and the middle schools.
The foundation is handling the money for SD2's Project Lead the Way and technology teaching lab efforts.
Phillips 66 already has a longstanding relationship with Orchard — as it has adopted the school through the foundation's Partners in Education program and employees volunteered more than 255 hours at the school last school year — so making the announcement there was an easy choice.
"We've been successful in having a direct impact on education through our mentoring program here at Orchard," Rigdon said.
Mayor Tom Hanel said that the donation and its use represent a perfect example of a public-private partnership for the greater good of the community.
"The community and the private sector working together can make it better and that's what this is all about," he said.
The donation helps SD2 look ahead to when today's kindergartners are looking to either enter the workforce or continue with post-secondary education and begin addressing today what they'll need to know, Bouck said. Echoing earlier sentiments, he described the donation as a "deal-maker" for the district.
"It's going to advance our school district light years," he said.
At the high school level, SD2 already offers pre-engineering and biomedical sciences education through the Billings Career Center as part of its STEM education and hopes to expand those options while using project-based instruction to prepare younger students before they get to high school.
Hertz said that the foundation has already received donations from businesses and groups around town totaling about $45,000 — $25,000 from ExxonMobil, $10,000 from SM Energy and $5,000 each from Stillwater Mining Co. and Dr. Enrico and Martha Arguelles — with several more pending.
She described the implementation of Project Lead the Way, the generous donations and Billings voters approving in May a $1.2 million technology levy for the elementary and middle schools as "a perfect storm" to take STEM education in Billings to new heights.
"Within fie years, we hope to have Project Lead the Way in all of the elementary and middle schools," she said. "It helps us really provide the best opportunity to get this program off the ground. It gives us a solid footing and the sky's the limit with what can happen for our kids because of that."