W.F. West graduate and longtime philanthropist Orin Smith is dedicating $10 million from the Orin Smith Family Foundation to support The Chehalis Foundation’s ongoing Student Achievement Initiative.
Smith is a 1960 graduate of W.F. West and a former Starbucks CEO and president. He’s contributed millions of dollars to the foundation in the past, but his most recent commitment is by far the largest contribution the foundation has ever received.
The donation is expected to generate $500,000 annually, which is half of the private funding needed to finance the program each year based on the lofty expectations and goals of The Chehalis Foundation. The donation was announced this week during a meeting of officials from the Foundation, the Chehalis School District and Centralia College at The Chronicle.
The Student Achievement Initiative has received national attention for its success in improving the outcomes for children graduating in the Chehalis School District.
“By all measures, students in Chehalis are benefitting from this Initiative,” Orin Smith said in a press release. “We understand the Washington Roundtable’s analysis and concerns and we believe we owe it to our kids to support the education that enables them to be successful in their working careers. As a result of the Student Achievement Initiative, the quality of Chehalis classroom instruction has gone from good to great. New college and career support services are in place for students, and they are working effectively. This contribution is to help assure that this effort does not fail for lack of resources.”
The SAI program aims to have 60 percent of students in the W.F. West class of 2022 graduate from college, a university or any other institution with a vocational certificate or degree. Other goals include 80 percent eligibility for college for the class of 2019.
“Honestly, when we started, we were excited and we thought we were on to something big. But I don’t think any of us fully realized what we were getting into,” said co-chairman of the Student Achievement Initiative Kevin Smith, Orin Smith’s brother. “We have made so much progress in such a short period of time with such outstanding work from everybody that it’s kind of intoxicating and exciting to think about what we’ve done. Yet at the same time, the reality is, we’re really just getting started.”
Kevin Smith acknowledged the importance of the STEM program (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and starting kids early in reading and math to get them prepared for a college education. Kevin Smith also talked about the need to educate parents on the options their kids have when it comes to pursuing a postsecondary education.
“There’s just so much more we need to do and that’s what this extra investment and commitment is for,” Kevin Smith said. “It’s to get us over the top, and I’m really confident that if we do all the things we’re capable of doing, that we will be a role model for the state. It will provide a great benefit to all of Lewis County and we’re all really excited about this.”
Chehalis Foundation Board Member J. Vander Stoep called the donation “astonishing generosity,” but noted the contribution is more than just money.
“The Smiths don’t just write checks and hope for the best,” he told The Chronicle. “They need to see the business plan, they need to see what the outcome is. They need to see how it’s measured all along the way … All of that is a component of this contribution … The community of Chehalis has been blessed by a long history of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things to help the school district … One of the reasons Orin and Kevin focus on the college-bound kids is that was them when they were growing up here.”
Earlier this year, Vander Stoep spoke of how the Chehalis School District had received $14 million in contributions through a “long tradition of giving” that spans back to the 1940s and William F. and Blanch E. West. Generous donors have included John and Zylpha Coffman, Ray and Mary Ingwersen, Jim Lintott, Gail and Carolyn Shaw, and many others.
Kevin Smith noted that being a role model, not just for kids and students in Lewis County but throughout the state and country, is an important part of this program.
“We should all care about kids from every county, every city, wherever they may live. And if we can help others learn how to get success in our school district that leads to credentials that leads to meaningful employment, what an amazing legacy that is,” Kevin Smith said. “I think it drives it for all of us.”
Educators and experts in Washington and beyond have noticed the project’s success. Executive Director of the Washington State Student Achievement Council Mike Meotti had some high praise for SAI from his observations of the program.
“The Chehalis Student Achievement Initiative stands out as one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful community efforts in the nation to support students as they move towards college and careers,” Meotti said in a press release. “I have worked with 75 sites around the country in a multiyear campaign to achieve similar goals and the Chehalis Initiative ranks in the top five communities I have seen.”
With the financial backing for the program relatively assured through this donation, it will allow the leaders behind the Student Achievement Initiative to try new things and keep the program sustainable for the long haul.
“The sustainability aspect of it is what’s huge to the college. We’re putting a lot of effort right now trying to figure out how to get this cohort of W.F. West graduates to be more successful. But if any of the things we’re doing are effective, we have an obligation to expand that to all of our students,” Centralia College President Bob Mohrbacher said. “Building in some sustainability into this is enormous or the whole thing would just collapse.”
The Chehalis Foundation is working closely with Centralia College along with its longtime partnership with the Chehalis School District. The Student Achievement Initiative is in many ways buoyed by the work of the BERC Group, a prestigious consulting agency that is keeping constant tabs on the progress of the district through data on participation in college-bound programs, graduation rates and other measurables.
The Foundation — along with its partners — is adapting along the way, adjusting its focus and adding programs as the numbers direct them. Vander Stoep said the flexibility is one of the reasons the initiative has seen so much success since it began four years ago.
About half of the graduates who pursue college after graduation at W.F. West attend Centralia College, which is why the Foundation has aligned itself so closely with the institution.
Other features of the program include visits to colleges and universities throughout the state, increases in dual enrollment opportunities for college and advanced placement classes, a summer math academy that has seen broad participation, and constant mentoring both at W.F. West and Centralia College.
Chehalis School District Superintendent Ed Rothlin expressed his profound appreciation for the donation and continued attention of both Orin and Kevin Smith. He said the financial commitment has helped lead to a culture change at the school, where he said his staff of teachers and educators are leading the charge toward an even better future for students graduating from the Chehalis School District.
Orin Smith was born in Ryderwood and moved to Chehalis prior to starting the first grade. His mother, Vernetta Smith, was the superintendent at Green Hill, while his father could not hold a job because he was an alcoholic, Vander Stoep said previously. The Chehalis library is now named for Vernetta Smith after Orin Smith supported that project.
The people in Chehalis took Smith under their wing, Vander Stoep said, and that’s a big reason Smith gives back to the community today.
Smith went to Centralia College and then to the University of Washington, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration. He graduated in the top 50 from Harvard with a master’s degree in the business administration program.
He was the state budget director under Govs. Dixie Lee Ray and Booth Gardner, and later worked his way up through the Starbucks Corp. to become president and CEO. He helped grow the chain from 45 stores to almost 10,000 in 33 countries. After he retired, he served on the board of directors for Disney and Nike.
Previous reporting by Justyna Tomtas was included in this report.