On a spring visit to Indianapolis Public Schools/Butler University Laboratory School, John and Robin Roberts toured a student-planted vegetable garden and the school’s chicken coop.

Robin Roberts, upper left, and John Roberts with Lab School students.

Inside a classroom, the couple from Zionsville, Ind., sat with kindergarteners at a low worktable. On the table was a basket containing “story stones,” rocks with pictures drawn on them. Students selected stones and made up stories based on the pictures. A teacher wrote down their words.

“One youngster had a picture of a basketball, so his story started with him playing basketball,” John said. “They draw the pictures of the story’s action and begin to learn sequencing.”

“It’s a great example of what they do here,” he said. “The learning is being generated from the kid’s perspective, as opposed to top down.”

Robin liked the learning “connections” she sees in Lab School instruction. “The kids can learn cause and effect, from planting seeds in the garden to eating the food. In the St. Mary’s (preschool) play store, four-and-a-half-year-olds are learning about money, making change.”

On another visit, John witnessed students absorbed in reading books. The classroom’s dedicated reading corner has soft lighting and comfortable furnishings. “It was like being in your den,” he said. “The kids stayed focus. There wasn’t a lot of spinning around and whispering.”

Several visits to the school convinced John and Robin that they wanted to support its efforts. Last year, the Roberts Family Foundation pledged $150,000 to Butler, to support preschool programming at the Lab School, provided by St. Mary’s Child Center.

“Robin and I have always thought that education was worthy of support. It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” John said.

“The appeal for us is the focus on early childhood. Statistically, the evidence is there that early childhood education is a difference maker in education, and probably more important when you’re dealing with kids who are at risk. Statewide, we’re behind the curve. Because of other problems, early education is not getting the attention needed.”

Connie Sherman, St. Mary’s executive director, said John and Robin are “people of like heart” with her staff and Lab Schools’. “From the day we first talked, they were very focused,” she said. “They understood what’s at stake for children.”

St. Mary’s three program sites, including the Lab School, are dedicated to serving children living in poverty.

“The Roberts Family Foundation grant has allowed us to increase the diversity of children we serve at Lab School,” Sherman said. “The negative effects of poverty in children are mitigated by their involvement in a high quality early childhood program. This is their shot. We’ve got to get it right.”

Having students of diverse social and economic backgrounds at Lab School is “a real catalyst for all the children’s growth,” she said. 

Lab School Principal Ron Smith said he appreciated the considerable thought Robin and John gave to their gift decision. “They spent time learning about what we do and what we aspire to become. They bought into our mission and goals for our school. You appreciate all support but especially appreciate when support comes from people who are personally invested.”

John said that Butler College of Education’s involvement in developing and operating the Lab School gave Robin and him confidence in the program’s ability to succeed.

“If you’re like us, people who work outside of education, you really want to partner with experts, those who are knowledgeable, who are on the forefront of doing things that work,” he said.

Robin’s parents, David Richey and Betty Ann Richey, both earned Butler degrees, and they brought their daughter to campus often during her childhood. “My mom and dad had great experiences at Butler,” Robin said. “We came to lots of ball games, Holcomb Gardens, and Starlight Musicals.”

Robin and John’s middle daughter, Kelsie, followed her grandmother, Betty Ann, in studying education at Butler. While attending University High School, Kelsie was actively involved in service projects at different IPS schools, her mother said. “She always had us come to all the parent programs for her students.”

Now a senior in Butler’s College of Education, Kelsie “comes home excited about what she’s doing,” John said. “She spent a semester at Lab School [taking an on-site education methods course]. She loved it, and told us about it.”

Six Butler courses were taught at Lab School in 2011-12, giving 103 University students opportunities to observe best teaching practices and apply their learning within classrooms.

“I love that the Butler students can participate in this education process,” Robin said. “It’s such innovative teaching. The small classroom size and close relationships that a teacher can have with students is great.” 

“The more we learned, the more we liked what Butler was doing,” John said. “We are interested in being involved in IPS, and Butler’s location and other ties to IPS make that possible.”