Innovia launches program that would pay college tuition for every Inland Northwest student

·6 min read

May 16—Innovia, the Spokane-based community foundation, has unveiled a sweeping $150 million initiative to reward scholarships to pay for every motivated student across the Inland Northwest to go to college or vocational training.

The effort is called Launch NW and its goal is ambitious: improving the economic vitality of the communities in Eastern Washington and North Idaho by sending far more students to college to fill the higher-paying jobs of the future. The program also includes services to help families foster successful students.

Working with community, government and private partners, Innovia hopes to raise the money within the next 15 months to pay for targeted scholarships and workforce training .

"The vision of LaunchNW is to advance opportunity, prosperity and growth in our region," Shelly O'Quinn, CEO of Innovia, said in a statement prior to the formal announcement in front of more than 300 people at the Spokane Convention Center.

"This bold investment in our community will provide hope and opportunity for students and families today," O'Quinn said. Innovia envisions the first students qualifying for college help as the class of 2024.

According to a statement from Innovia, that aid would include wraparound community support for all students and families, and scholarships for high school seniors, "allowing them to pursue the postsecondary educational or vocational training they need in order to excel in adulthood and contribute meaningfully to the well-being of their community."

The initiative comes at a time of worsening economic insecurity in the 20 counties served by Innovia. Though high-school graduation rates have climbed in recent years, only four in 10 graduates in the region move on to post-secondary education or training.

Part of that reason is that only 15% of Spokane County households can afford to buy a home in what has become an expensive housing region.

Drawing on the success of similar initiatives in Buffalo, Cleveland and other cities, LaunchNW will count on donors, businesses and philanthropic efforts to seed the supported promise scholarships.

Private grants, city and county investments and funding from school districts will support the implementation of LaunchNW Innovia's territory covers 102 school districts.

Fundraising work, which began last year, is already underway.

Earlier this year, Spokane County Commissioners allocated $5 million. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, through congressionally directed federal funds, has allocated $2.5 million to support implementation in rural communities.

Additional contributions have been received from local businesses, donors and foundations.

The effort will be led by Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small, who recently was named executive director of LaunchNW. Small will officially retire from the school district effective June 30.

"When I made the announcement that I was retiring from public education, I said I wanted to stay in this community and continue to give back to the community I love," Small said. "This opportunity absolutely connects with me on a personal level because it was part of my lived experience."

Many residents in the 20-county area are facing challenges of housing affordability, homelessness, food insecurity, crime, access to quality early child care and education.

Many of those problems are tied to lack of education.

According to the Washington Roundtable Full Report published earlier this year, 74% of career job openings in the state require employees with a bachelor's or two-year degree.

However, four in 10 Washington high school students do not pursue postsecondary training, leaving them out of the running for those higher-paying jobs.

In Spokane County, over 85% of the employed population cannot afford to buy a home, partly because housing prices have jumped more than 60% in just the past two years.

Nearly one in three people in the 20-county region served by Innovia are economically insecure, meaning they live in households with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level.

In Kootenai County, more than 60% of all projected job openings by 2026 will require at least some form of education beyond high school .

In a recent national study, adults with lower educational attainment were shown to be at greater risk of food insecurity, which in turn has been linked to a decreased chance of a child's chances of graduating from high school.

The overarching goal of LaunchNW, said O'Quinn, is to break that cycle. O'Quinn was a former Spokane County Commissioner who resigned in 2017 to lead Innovia.

"Everyone is trying to hire right now, but now there's a large group of our population who is underemployed and underskilled," O'Quinn said.

For O'Quinn, the idea began forming in the fall of 2018 during a conversation with a donor who asked her "What would you do with $100 million?"

That encounter was followed by a couple of sleepless nights as O'Quinn realized that the question wasn't just theoretical.

Instead, it led to more questions, and finally the one that the Innovia Foundation has posed to community, school and civic leaders in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

What if an entire region came together to advance opportunity for every child, prosperity for every family and growth for our economy and communities in Eastern Washington and North Idaho?

What if we made a different kind of bold investment for the next 50 years that will address the challenges our communities face today?

O'Quinn said that Innovia won't be working without a blueprint; it will try to emulate the approach taken in Rust Belt cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland and Syracuse.

Modeled after the "Say Yes to Education Buffalo," LaunchNW will attempt to mobilize communities around the goal of every student graduating high school and having the preparation and support needed to attain the career or college education of their choice.

The buy-in will include signed commitments from the school system, governmental agencies and community organizations to work together on fundraising, data-sharing, after-school programs and other initiatives.

Partners include city and county government, school districts, parents, teachers, businesses, unions, philanthropic and faith-based organizations, colleges and universities.

The program will work through three core groups of stakeholders, representatives of each community and local leaders:

* A community advisory board made up of elected officials, schools, nonprofits and business leaders. This Board provides public visibility for results and ensures the goals and results remain relevant to the community.

* A community leadership council, which will establish task force areas, build capacity across the county, and analyzes data across the counties.

* A community action council, which will meet regularly to monitor data, evaluate wraparound services, establish best practices and identify emerging needs.

"We are creating a structure and a framework to bring districts and communities together to solve problems different that we have had before," Small said.

Ten years ago, the high school graduation rate in Buffalo was only 49%. Five years later it had climbed to 64%, partly because of the "Say Yes" program.

Innovia cited more statistics from Buffalo, including a claim that in 2014, the program had leveraged $15.11 in external investments for every dollar invested.

In Cleveland, the "Say Yes" program has funded 69 specialists in schools. Last year, they made 1,600 mental health referrals.

"The data shows that it works," O'Quinn said.

They key, according to Small, is sustainability.

"We've got a program that we can sustain for 5 years and beyond," said Small, who along with O'Quinn emphasized that the program will support technical pathways as well as college.

"What is important is that a child enters based on a pathway that's been designed for them," Small said.

This story is developing