WATERVILLE — Thomas College on Monday named its School of Education for Waterville natives and philanthropists Peter and Paula Lunder, whose gifts totaling more than $5 million helped establish the Center for Innovation in Education.

The Peter and Paula Lunder School of Education offers a program that is the first of its kind in the state. It allows students to obtain a three-year accelerated bachelor’s degree in early childhood, elementary and secondary education and then a master’s of science degree in education, education leadership and literacy education.

Paula and Peter Lunder were on hand Monday for the dedication of the Peter and Paula Lunder School of Education building at Thomas College in Waterville. Since 2002, the Lunders have donated more than $5 million to Thomas. Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

The program helps reduce the cost of college by more than 25% and will place more teachers in the workforce sooner, addressing a critical need for educators, according to Thomas College officials.

More than 100 college and school administrators, students, education advocates, business leaders and others packed a room Monday morning in the Ayotte Center on the Thomas campus to celebrate the Lunders for their generosity and dedication to students and education.

The Lunders’ commitment to art and education in Waterville includes a 2017 donation to Colby College of more than $100 million to establish the Lunder Institute for American Art.  Peter Lunder is a 1956 Colby graduate who received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the college in 1998; Paula Crane Lunder received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1998. Their gift included nearly 1,150 new works by artists including Maya Lin, Joan Mitchell, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, a donation that established Colby as the only liberal arts college with both an innovative art museum dedicated to cross-disciplinary study and a global research center for American art.

Thomas President Laurie Lachance on Monday thanked the Lunders, who were present with their daughter, Margie Lunder, and nephew, Kevin Gillis, president of the Lunder Foundation.

Laurie LaChance, Thomas College president, at the dedication of the Peter and Paula Lunder School of Education building on Monday, Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

“The naming of the Lunder School of Education will put a big exclamation mark on our ability to grow because you are the gold standard of leadership, of generosity, of philanthropy, of innovation, of hard work,” Lachance said.  “And to associate your name with ours is one of the greatest honors.”

Peter Lunder said he and his wife are pleased that they have been able to help improve accessibility for Maine students to get an education at Thomas and for the opportunities made possible to them by that education.

“We love Thomas,” he said. “We love the staff, the students and the leadership, and we can not praise Laurie (Lachance) and her team enough. Laurie, in our opinion, is a flawless gem.”

Pamela Thompson, chairwoman of the Thomas College school of education, speaks at the dedication of the Peter and Paul Lunder School of Education building on Monday. Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

Pamela Thompson, chairwoman of the Lunder School of Education and professor of education, said the Center for Innovation, made possible by the Lunders’ generosity, is partnering with Waterville High School in a joint effort to promote the development of computer science skills and programming. The Thomas School of Education, she said, has been working closely with Colby College President David Greene, Waterville Schools Superintendent Eric Haley and several local pre-kindergarten through grade 12 advocates to reconceptualize what schools could become as the city takes part in its “reshaping, renewal and growth.”

In recognizing the key role that high quality early child care and education plays in a healthy work force,” Thompson said,  “our education faculty responded by collaborating across Thomas College, to design a degree that would blend coursework in early childhood education, business management and entrepreneurship. The result is the School of Education’s Child Care Management degree, the only one of its kind in the New England region.”

Sierra Rhoda, a junior at Thomas College, will get her bachelor’s degree in just three years as part of the education program at Thomas College, as the school dedicated the Peter and Paula Lunder School of Education building on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

She welcomed Ed Cervone, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Education, saying he has nearly 20 years experience in educational policy and economic development, including serving in leadership roles at the Maine Development Foundation and Educate Maine.

She also thanked the Lunders for “supporting our shaping of Maine’s teachers and educational landscapes and for supporting our dedicated faculty.”

After the crowd moved outside for a reception on the lawn and the Lunders unveiled the new name of the building, Haley, the Waterville schools superintendent, praised the couple’s efforts.

He said he had an analogy in his head while Lachance was talking about what the Lunder gift will mean and it was as if Thomas College had the train and it was hooked onto its business and other schools, but didn’t have its own engine.

“Now, this gift gives it its own engine and the train’s going to drive itself,” Haley said. “It’s a wonderful gift.”

Thomas junior Sierra Rhoda, 19, of Houlton, who is majoring in elementary education, was taking part in the celebration Monday and praised the Lunder gift.

“Oh, my God — this is really huge for me,” Rhoda said. “I’ve been passionate about the education of Maine for so many years. My mother and aunt are teachers, so I’m keeping it going. We have a huge heart for children. Paula and Peter (Lunder) are absolutely precious, very humble people. I was talking to her before the ceremony and didn’t even know it was her. They are contributing so much to Thomas College. The education program here is absolutely amazing. I’m so thankful.”

Rhoda said she entered Thomas already having a lot of college credits under her belt and she will earn her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 2021 — after just three years — and plans to obtain a master’s a year later. She said she loves Maine and wants to teach in the state.

“I’m definitely going to stay in Maine,” she said.

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