Leonhard legacy includes generous support of language and literacy

May 22, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Even as a child, Jeanne Leonhard recognized the importance of proficiency in language and literacy, and she’s made it a priority throughout her life.

“Reading was my least favorite subject as a young student, because it was the most difficult for me. But as I went through school, I soon realized I can’t excel in science or math or any other subjects, if I don’t know how to read,” Leonhard said. “Therefore, I focused in on reading. Language and literacy is so pervasive throughout the entire educational experience and our lives.”

Leonhard, an alumna of the Penn State College of Education, has shared her personal literacy journey with her students and their parents during her 40 years of teaching in Arcadia, California. She wanted to help impress upon them the importance of developing strong literacy skills.

“As elementary teachers, we many times have the sole responsibility to instruct our class in all subjects. Some might find this daunting, but I feel it is the greatest gift a teacher can receive, because it allows you to see and work with the total child,” Leonhard said. “Many lessons are interdisciplinary and collaborative and teachers need a broad base of knowledge to be able to weave all of the threads together. At the same time, literacy was the area that I tried to put most of my emphasis on with my young students.”

One of the benefits of teaching in a self-contained classroom is the opportunity to take advantage of what Leonhard calls “teachable moments.”

“My favorite part of teaching was bringing a surprise, an interesting fact, something unique to the classroom experience. And I think it’s those kinds of spontaneous educational experiences that the children remember most,” said Leonhard.

“California has very little rain so whenever we’d have a rain storm, the students and I would be out in the grass, looking for earthworms and worm castings. I didn’t worry so much about my original lesson plans but took advantage of this once-a-year, hands-on educational opportunity. I would rearrange my plans and highlight this special event. I pulled out my insect and worm books and filled the day with reading, writing, art, science, math and physical education lessons, all focusing on worms.”

The Leonhard name is well-known in the Penn State community. Jeanne’s family has given many generous gifts to the University over the years, most notably the Leonhard Center for Enhancement of Engineering Education, which was established in 1990 by an endowment from Jeanne’s parents, William and Wyllis Leonhard.

At the time they made that gift, William Leonhard said, “In the twilight of a business career, one rarely is offered an opportunity to give something back to the system that prepared him for success. My gift to endow The Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education is exercising this opportunity afforded me.”

In the same vein, Jeanne Leonhard is giving back to the College of Education.

“When I graduated in 1968 and got my first job teaching kindergarten, I found that my excellent College of Education training gave me full confidence that I was ready to provide a sound foundation to my students that would support them on their way through the coming years,” she said. “I fortunately did not have the burden of today’s large student loans and was able to focus my time and energy on my studies and students. I’m now able to provide financial assistance to future teachers. I hope that they too can focus on their studies to become tomorrow’s strong classroom teachers and enjoy this rewarding lifelong profession as much as I did.”

Leonhard has given several gifts to the college, with scholarship endowments set up to benefit roughly 30 students each year. She now has added a $400,000 gift to the College of Education, which will be used to renovate additional learning spaces in Chambers Building. In gratitude for her generosity, the college is naming the Language and Literacies Studio in her honor.

“Being the only nonengineer Leonhard, I’m very pleased to be recognized in this way by the College of Education,” she said.

Such philanthropy has a lasting effect, according to College of Education Dean David H. Monk.

“Gifts such as this help us to create learning experiences that set the Penn State College of Education apart and position our students to excel and succeed, not only during their time as students, but after graduation when they enter the workforce,” Monk said. “The educational experiences we are able to afford our students through the updated learning spaces we are creating in Chambers Building would not be possible without the generosity of people like Jeanne Leonhard.”

Monk said the creation of the new learning spaces in Chambers Building — the Language and Literacies Studio, the Social Studies Lab, the Math Education Lab, the Krause Studios for Innovation, and the Science Education wing that currently is under construction — has opened the door to more interdisciplinary work among faculty and students.

Leonhard also is a big fan of the PDS (Professional Development School) collaboration with the State College Area School District. When she first learned about it, she was a mentor teacher in her school district, working with and supporting new teachers.

“I think the PDS experience gives students a true picture of what teaching really is,” said Leonhard.

Leonhard said that growing up, her family lived a fiscally conservative life, and her parents were able to save up money to put her and her two brothers through college.

“But my mother said she didn’t have a new car because one brother went to college and she didn’t have fancy clothes because my other brother went to college. And she didn’t have a nice big diamond ring because I went to college. So as a family, we all did our parts to advance our education,” Leonhard said.

“Fortunately, later in life we were in positions that we could all give back. I think that’s an important thing to remember, that everyone can give back to their school, maybe not in a large financial way, but in some kind of support for the next generation.”

Leonhard said that while the family name has a strong association with engineering, they also have supported the arts through donations to the College of Arts and Architecture, and as a lifelong teacher, she is proud and happy to support the College of Education.

“As teachers, we are setting the foundation for everyone’s future success,” Leonhard said. “We need to remember that those engineers and singers and dancers all started their educations in an elementary classroom. I have focused my giving into the College of Education, to help support present students so they can go forward and become the teachers that will educate the next generation of successful people.”

Leonhard's generosity will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

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Last Updated June 15, 2018