Editor’s note: This is the third installment in an ongoing series focused on the Chehalis School District and the success of its Student Achievement Initiative, which was launched in 2013. Previous instalments can be found here and here.
In 2003, the Chehalis Foundation was founded with an initial focus on park-related projects. But the foundation’s mission would soon expand to include excellence in the Chehalis School District.
According to J. Vander Stoep, a member of the Chehalis Foundation who has since been elected to the Chehalis School Board, a couple named Ray and Mary Ingwersen had financially supported the molecular genetics program at W.F. West High School. While the Ingwersens’ donations did not initially go through the foundation, other people soon came along and wanted to continue their work to support the district.
“(The Ingwersens) had underwritten the hiring of the molecular genetics program and then other people came along and wanted that to continue,” Vander Stoep said.
By 2011, the Chehalis Foundation had begun receiving donations to expand the district’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program. As new STEM programs, such as the high school’s robotics team, began to take off, the Chehalis Foundation began looking for more funding sources for STEM education.
In 2012, Vander Stoep reached out to Orin and Kevin Smith, both prominent and wildly successful graduates of W.F. West High School, to inquire about the possibility they could help connect the district with biotech firms to see if they would be interested in supporting the district’s STEM programs, particularly molecular genetics.
“I was thinking there might be biotech firms that would be interested in supporting these programs here, especially molecular genetics and that perhaps Orin and Kevin knew some people with those firms and might make introductions,” Vander Stoep told The Chronicle.
In the past, members of the Smith family had provided support to various causes in Chehalis.
Orin Smith was still CEO of Starbucks when he and his family began giving back to their hometown of Chehalis. Smith, who graduated from W.F. West High School in 1960 and passed away from cancer in 2018, had received a call asking if he wanted to help support a new project to make the Chehalis public library accessible for people with disabilities. Smith agreed to give support to the project, which soon grew into a plan to build the current library that now bears his mother Vernetta Smith’s name.
Orin Smith’s younger brother, Kevin Smith, told The Chronicle the library project served as the Smith family’s “intro to Chehalis,” which kicked off over a decade of philanthropic support by the Smiths to the Chehalis community.
While the Smith family didn’t work with the Chehalis Foundation on the library project, the two soon began working together on projects, such as the rebuilding of the Chehalis aquatics center.
Within a few years, the Smith family began working with the foundation on a new project, improving the Chehalis School District.
“The first time we began looking at the district, we were invited to come down and look at the STEM program,” Kevin Smith recalled.
While the Smiths were initially brought in to work on the district’s STEM program, their focus soon expanded to broader educational goals, such as providing college scholarships to students and supporting student achievement. As their focus began to expand, the Smiths and the Chehalis Foundation decided it was important to understand how the district was performing.
“While we knew cost was an issue, before putting any money into the district we wanted an assessment into the district to see how it was performing,” Kevin Smith said.
To determine how students were performing, the foundation began looking for consulting firms that would be able to evaluate the district.
“At the time, Orin was on the University of Washington Board of Regents,” Vander Stoep said. “(He) asked the dean what the best consulting firm in the country was.”
The dean introduced Orin Smith and the foundation to the Baker Evaluation Research Consulting (BERC) Group, which began examining the district’s teaching practices.
“(The BERC Group) basically did an audit in 2013, they looked at the district top to bottom,” Vander Stoep said.
When Duane Baker, the founder of the BERC Group, arrived at the district, he found a district focused on its students.
“They had really good leadership and people who are visionaries who wanted student achievement to be at the forefront,” Baker said. “Really wanted as many as possible to go to college or jump into a career.”
According to Kevin Smith, while the BERC Group’s initial examination of the district was positive, it also showed there was room for improvement.
“We learned the district was performing well for similar sized districts around the state … but far from exceptional,” Kevin Smith said.
After studying the results of the BERC Group’s examination, the foundation decided more work needed to be done to achieve its goals for the district. To meet those goals, the Student Achievement Initiative (SAI) was launched as an effort on the part of the foundation and school district to improve student success and outcomes in the face of changing social and economic needs in the Chehalis community.
“Orin and myself and J. (Vander Stoep) were really the beginning of the SAI .... We didn’t create it, but we were there really right out of the gate. After the first (BERC) study we kind of created the tagline ‘SAI,’” Kevin Smith said. “From the get-go, Orin and I were incredibly involved in the SAI … if Orin were still alive today, he’d still be involved in the SAI because there’s nothing more important than education.”
To support the SAI, a fundraising campaign co-chaired by Vander Stoep and Kevin Smith was launched.
“We raised money in the community early on, 2014 and 2015, to augment the taxpayers,” Vander Stoep said. “All these donations have come through us. Several hundred people in the community here contributed.”
The fundraising effort proved successful.
“It’s kind of unprecedented for a district of our size to raise that kind of money for a district … and that was really because of the work of the Chehalis Foundation,” Kevin Smith said. “What it really boils down to is how giving the community is … It all started with the library and it just continues to get better and better.”
The funds from the foundation have continued to support the initiative, ensuring a steady stream of money to support the SAI.
“Now there’s more than $600,000 a year that goes to the school district from the Chehalis Foundation,” Vander Stoep said.
The funds support various aspects of the SAI, including new research by the BERC Group to identify fresh areas of improvement for the district and paying for various school district positions to support students on their path to academic success.
According to Kevin Smith, the foundation has funded eight studies by the BERC Group focused on the Chehalis School District. The results of those studies are used to improve student outcomes in the district. Kevin Smith has described the SAI as being like an onion, in which when one issue is solved, another issue is found a layer beneath.
“We’ve had the BERC Group do studies on various issues, parts of the onion, as they arise,” Vander Stoep said while using Kevin Smith’s analogy.
One example of the studies conducted by the BERC Group was titled “Decreasing Summer Melt and Increasing Persistence and Completion: Evidence from National and Local Efforts to Support Students in Completing a Postsecondary Degree, Certificate or Credential.” Completed in June 2019, the study is 30 pages long and examines the phenomenon of “summer melt,” in which high school graduates who are accepted into an institution of higher education fail to matriculate during the fall term following graduation.
The study examined academic literature on summer melt as well as current school district practices before making recommendations on new policies the district could implement to improve outcomes for graduates.
For example, the study listed among current district practices the use of summer counseling support, in which a summer counselor is hired to “support students during the summer after high school graduation.” These counselors are hired from within the district with the idea the counselor would be someone the students signed up to attend Centralia College would have a relationship with and trust.
According to Vander Stoep, for the past eight to 10 years, the foundation has been paying people to stay in contact with W.F. West graduates who are planning on attending Centralia College to keep them up to date on the enrollment process. Vander Stoep said the foundation takes steps focused on graduates attending Centralia College, such as hiring people to assist graduates going to the school, because it's the largest destination for W.F. West graduates, with about a quarter of the high school’s graduating classes attending the school.
The study ended by providing 14 recommendations on how to reduce summer melt among W.F. West graduates. One such recommendation was the streamlining of the Centralia College enrollment process. The study argued visiting the Centralia College campus has been a barrier for many students and recommended removing this step for enrollment. One suggestion to offer some of the steps for enrollment, such as watching an orientation video, at W.F. West. Another recommendation made in the study is the use of “updated communication platforms,” such as social media sites. The study gave the example of an artificial intelligence chatbot known as “Pounce,” which can answer questions related to school enrollment, deadlines and financial aid.
In addition to studies examining school district practices, the foundation also funds various positions to support students.
On the recommendation of the BERC Group, for example, the district hired a career and college adviser. According to Vander Stoep, the purpose of the adviser position was to “have a dedicated person so they can just say ‘no I’m just college and career,’” rather than have to handle other student issues.
The BERC Group has played a central role in the SAI, with all of the steps taken by the district and the foundation guided by the firm’s research.
“There hasn’t been anything done that’s random, everything we’ve done has been based on state and national best practices,” Vander Stoep said. “Different school districts try different things and some are successful and some aren’t. When we do things, it’s based on trial and error elsewhere.”
In partnering with the BERC Group, the foundation has made significant progress in achieving its goals for the Chehalis School District. Part of that progress has been through changing the goals of the district.
“School districts are focused on getting kids their cap and gown,” Vander Stoep said. “The foundation-school district partnership has changed that.”
According to Vander Stoep, the goal the foundation has set for the district is ensuring students are “getting a credential that will set them up for a family wage career,” meaning a career that will allow them to support raising a family.
Vander Stoep told The Chronicle 70% of family wage jobs require more than a high school credential.
“Seventy percent, that’s going up,” Vander Stoep said. “That’s not going down.”
While the district and foundation have worked to improve student outcomes, Vander Stoep said ultimately it’s up to students to choose what they do.
“No Chehalis graduate is required to do anything, it’s their choice. (But) if you graduate from high school but haven’t taken the classes required to go to college, you don’t really have a choice,” Vander Stoep said. “Our goal is to get every single W.F. West graduate the training they need to have a choice. And hopefully a lot of them will choose to get a credential because it will benefit them and create a more prosperous and productive path for them in their life. That’s what this is all about.”
In striving to change the goals of the district, the SAI has caught the attention of educators across the state. In the past few years, other districts have reached out to Chehalis. A couple of years ago, educators from Bellevue came to Chehalis to examine the progress the district had made under the SAI. Dr. Mia Tuan, the Dean of the University of Washington’s College of Education, even called the SAI “inspiring.”
“There is no more impressive career and college preparation story in public education in this state today,” said Steve Mullin, the president of the Roundtable, an organization composed of Washington's largest businesses. “The Roundtable closely follows the progress of the Chehalis Student Achievement Initiative.”
“The Chehalis SAI stands out as one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful community efforts in the nation to support students as they move toward college and careers,” said Michael Meotti, the executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council.
While the foundation has made significant progress in achieving its goals for the district, the partnership will continue even after the current targets for the SAI are met. According to Vander Stoep, new, more ambitious goals could be set once the foundation’s current goal of 60% of graduates earning a higher education credential has been achieved.
“I believe it’s a partnership that may go on forever,” Kevin Smith said of the relationship between the foundation and the school district. “I see us going hand in hand forward when it comes to education.”
And the initiative won’t be short of funds. Since the initial fundraiser to support the SAI, the Chehalis Foundation has been able to continue supporting the initiative and will continue to do so thanks to funds donated by Orin Smith, who gave $10 million to create an endowment to support the initiative in perpetuity before his death.
“Orin Smith’s contribution to the school district was a man of paying it forward. He also helped to create a model that could be copied by other districts … could benefit from,” Vander Stoep said.
But while many in the Chehalis School District and at the Chehalis Foundation are grateful to have the support of individuals like the Smiths, those supporting the SAI have been grateful for the opportunity to help Chehalis students succeed and are proud of the work they have accomplished with the school district.
“I would say I’m incredibly proud of the Chehalis School District and the leadership that’s been there since day one. Leadership at the top has been extraordinary for a program like this to be successful, you need buy-in from everybody,” Kevin Smith said. “The teachers have been incredible … They’re at the front line for interface with students. The (college advisers), those individuals have done an amazing job.”
Kevin Smith also said he was proud of the W.F. West and Coffman Scholarships, which are managed by the Chehalis Foundation and given to W.F. West High School graduates. He said that while his family isn’t directly involved in the scholarship programs, they were an example of the kind of work the Chehalis Foundation does that makes him proud.
Orin Smith himself expressed his gratitude for the chance to work on the SAI. In 2015, shortly after making a joint $1 million donation with fellow Chehalis Foundation donor James Lintott, Orin Smith sent an email to Vander Stoep expressing his gratitude for including him in the Chehalis Foundation’s educational activities.
“It is very gratifying to work with you and the district on these critically important initiatives,” Orin Smith said. “The commitment the district has made gives us great hope we can really accomplish something meaningful for the children in Chehalis, an ambition few people have the opportunity to realize.”
Achieving Success is the title of a new, ongoing series of stories focused on the Chehalis School District and its Student Achievement Initiative. Look for more installments in upcoming editions of The Chronicle. The series will be compiled at chronline.com. Reporter Matthew Zylstra is a W.F. West High School graduate.