Spokane Journal of Business

Ben Small to lead Innovia’s LaunchNW initiative

LaunchNW aims to help students attain college, career training of choice

  • Print Article

Ben Small, longtime superintendent at Central Valley School District, will join the Innovia Foundation as executive director of a new program, LaunchNW, when he retires from CVSD at the end of the school year.

LaunchNW, which later is expected to become an independent entity, is being formed through Spokane-based Innovia Foundation to provide high school students with scholarships and other support services intended to provide greater access to college and career education. Innovia has received $8.5 million in federal and municipal funding to help establish the LaunchNW initiative in Eastern Washington.

The program will serve 20 counties in Eastern Washington and northern Idaho, reaching 102 school districts with a total of 147,400 K-12 students.

Small says Innovia approached him about the LaunchNW opportunity after he announced his plans to retire from CVSD.

“When I decided to retire from public education, I knew I wanted to continue to work and build the community I love, so that’s what I’m looking to do,” says Small.

He adds that this position will keep him engaged in the community to promote individual prosperity and individual opportunity, while supporting the economic health of the region by growing a multiskilled workforce.

LaunchNW will focus on several key tenets that it believes are equally important to garner success. Among them is a regionally supported Promise Scholarship program envisioned to fill gaps in funding students need to attain a postsecondary education or career training.

The Promise Scholarship is meant to help students overcome financial barriers by offering “the last dollar” students may need when financial aid, scholarships, and other grants aren’t enough, says Small.

It will be made available beginning fall 2024, he says. Funds will start to be raised through the creation of cross-sector partnerships that form the Scholarship Board, an independent 501 (c)(3) organization that will lead local fundraising for the scholarship fund. The board will manage the policies around the distribution of Promise Scholarships and ensure transparency and accountability.

A regionally supported Promise Scholarship is intended to be an incentive that provides hope and opportunity for students and families and keeps partners at the table, Small notes.

“Children of poverty see finances as a barrier to college. How do we take that away and then have a conversation about what that child wants to pursue?” says Small.

In addition, he states it’s important to look at the idea of postsecondary attainment through a spectrum of pathways ranging from workforce training to a traditional four-year university degree.

“We should not be pigeon-holing kids along their pathway,” says Small. “Let’s really work with our children to see what their pathways will be.”

The initiative is modeled after the “Say Yes to Education” program founded in 1987 in Philadelphia by philanthropist and hedge fund manager George Weiss. The program has been replicated in several cities, including Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio. 

Small contends schools alone can’t do the work of furthering children’s paths toward a secondary education. Teachers have students for six to seven hours a day during which they help build social and emotional skills and strategies for kids to be successful, however those kids often don’t have the same support at home, says Small.

“What I love about LaunchNW is that it believes it’s not up to the school district alone, but an entire community that needs to come together to say, ‘How do we solve the challenges that our families and children face?’” he says.

He points to a model by Communities in Schools, which has coordinators and mentors in schools to assist students facing various obstacles including food insecurity and financial barriers.

“How do we do more of that? How do we knit that together so that we are talking not just about immediate problems but asking families, ‘What are your hopes and dreams for your child?’” says Small.

Building on this notion, LaunchNW will create a collaborative governance of three core groups made up of representatives of the community and local leaders. The groups will include a community advisory board that provides public visibility for results; a community leadership council that will establish data-driven tasks force areas; and community action councils, which will be established in distinct communities in order to meet the specific needs of that community.

In addition, leveraging wraparound services for families and students will ensure they have support beyond academics, Small says. Such support would include free family services, legal services, access to early childhood and preschool education, tutoring services, and low-cost or no-cost health care.

Small points out that Washington state has comparatively low rates of applications for federal and state student financial aid through programs known by the acronyms FASFA and WASFA.

“Filling out the FAFSA and WASFA is daunting for most people,” says Small. “These are the things that if a community comes together and decides this is absolutely important to us, then we can start changing the narrative.”

Small says one solution is partnering with organizations such as United Way of Spokane, which offers tax services and asking volunteers to fill out FAFSA and WASFA forms simultaneously. Another idea is to partner with banks that have relationships with these families and promoting a workshop night in which individuals can learn how to fill out the applications.

“This business community has come alongside nonprofits and school districts to solve problems,” says Small.

He referenced the business community’s support of bond and levy funding for public schools, and the creation of the Washington State University medical school.

“This community comes together to do big things,” he says. “That’s what we believe we are going to do at LaunchNW—bring people together to solve that.”

Small says his own background as a college dropout drives his passion for LaunchNW’s mission. In 1982, he moved to Spokane to attend Spokane Falls Community College without a financial plan to attain a degree. In his second semester, he dropped out and worked in fast food, leaving behind his desire for a degree in business administration.

After a few years of hiring and training young people at fast-food restaurants, he realized he loved mentoring and his dream was actually in education. He returned to SFCC in 1986 and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Eastern Washington University.

“Our statistics for completion rates of certificates and training are not where they need to be for families to prosper and the economy to grow,” says Small. “When we figure that out, this region will be poised to take off.”

Small says the program will have about five employees and be jointly located with the Innovia Foundation, on the sixth floor of the Paulsen Center, at 421 W. Riverside.

Innovia launched the program formally earlier this week during Innovia’s 2022 Community Leadership Summit.

The program is expected to spin off from Innovia in July, when it will act as an independent organization, while sustaining a connection with the parent organization.

Like this story?

You’ll love the rest. Subscribe today, and you’ll receive a year’s subscription to the Journal of Business, unlimited access to this website, daily business news emails, and weekly industry-specific
e-newsletters. Click here for 50% off your first year.

Karina Elias
  • Karina Elias

  • Email Karina Elias
  • Follow RSS feed for Karina Elias

Reporter Karina Elias covers the banking and finance industry. A California native, she attended the University of California at Santa Barbara. Karina loves salsa dancing, traveling, baking, cuddling with her dog, and writing creative fiction and non-fiction.  

Read More

Sign up for our E-mail updates

including the
Morning Edition

Join our list