During his remarks at the Liberty Bell High School’s class of 2019 graduation ceremonies last Friday, Methow Valley School District Supt. Tom Venable made a stunning announcement that may have been overlooked amid the festivities.
Venable said that an anonymous donor had bequeathed $1 million — you read that right — to the school district’s scholarship foundation. The donation will be used as the genesis of a scholarship fund for Liberty Bell graduates who choose not to pursue a secondary degree, but rather seek training for other career paths such as skilled trades. You can read the details in on story this week on page A1.
Like the best endowments, this one will be self-funding, throwing off enough interest each year to support $30,000 to $40,000 worth of scholarships while the principal remains intact. The benefits to the district, its students and the community are likely to last for decades.
“There’s a lot of research that says nearly 60 percent of tomorrow’s work force will not require a four-year university degree, but rather … participation in trades programs, certification programs and two-year college programs,” Venable told the Methow Valley News.
The gift comes at a particularly apt time, as changing global conditions are forcing many of our youngest citizens to take a hard look at what will best prepare them for the so-called “gig economy.” In some business and industry sectors, many basic skills remain in demand. Emerging new jobs will create the need for an evolving concept of training and education. Of note is that the scholarship foundation bequest references “green jobs” among others. Some may still require a university diploma or advanced degree, but many will not. If students are shown a path with promise, and have the necessary financial support to head that direction, the world of opportunity broadens.
As a longtime business editor and writer, I often heard from corporate types and small business owners alike that their never-ending challenge was to find students emerging from post-secondary education (which doesn’t have to mean college) with the skills necessary to step immediately into the work force. Good-paying jobs have gone begging because of a chronic lack of qualified candidates. I’ve had business owners tell me that they’d even be willing to offer on-the-job training for the inexperienced, but found many applicants lacked even rudimentary abilities — such as writing coherently.
Our community colleges — what used to be somewhat derisively called “junior colleges” — are already offering a wide variety of training opportunities to prepare students to enter the jobs pipeline. The offerings at Wenatchee Valley Community College’s Omak campus draw quite a few Methow Valley residents. Some students take advantage of those opportunities while continuing to work at other jobs, with the hope of eventually landing a secure position in a place where they are needed.
Community colleges have demonstrated that they can be more nimble in responding to workplace needs, creating new programs with a quick-turnaround time compared to universities, which often need years to develop new curricula.
At every high school, there are kids whose aspirations and talents don’t gravitate them toward four-year degrees. Liberty Bell is certainly no exception. Creating equality of opportunity, Venable stressed, is a necessary goal for local educational efforts.
The new scholarship fund will have the community’s gratitude, but the healthy endowment won’t require the community’s continuous financial backing. The $1 million scholarship program augments but does not replace the community’s existing scholarship funds, which will continue to need all of our support. Take a look at the scholarship and awards lists on page B1 of this week’s newspaper to get an idea of how important those many sources are to Liberty Bell graduates, many of whom are creatively cobbling together packages of scholarships, grants and other financial incentives to get them launched in colleges and universities. The power of this community’s generosity is evident in those meaningful programs. Without them, many dreams might fall short.
The new scholarship foundation funding is also a compliment to the school district and foundation leadership. Nobody’s going to hand $1 million over to someone they don’t trust to use it well. Although the fund isn’t yet fully operational, the district was able to extend scholarship support this year to one graduate who will be pursuing training at a community college. Next year will likely see the initial full-fledged use of the fund.
At last weekend’s graduation ceremony, the guest speaker — Liberty Bell civics teacher Scott Barber — encouraged the graduates to think about returning “home” after they get an education and see a bit of the world. The new scholarship fund may help make that more possible, and likely.