One grant at a time, PIE proves its staying power

Through the years, PIE has funneled more than $1.7 million dollars to support teacher-designed programs, projects and activities – from early-education math to international learning opportunities.

Thirty-five years ago, a group of islanders had the bright and simple idea to form a nonprofit, Partners in Education (PIE), dedicated to supporting academics on Vashon by awarding mini-grants to educators and fostering collaborative partnerships between the schools and other organizations on Vashon.

To raise this money, the group settled on a tried-and-true (and now safely socially distant) means — an old-fashioned phonathon.

Now, as PIE’s current crop of volunteers prepares to hold a 35th-anniversary pie party for the community on Oct. 3 and launch PIE’s annual phonathon during the week of Oct. 10, it’s worth looking back to see all the group has accomplished in the past three decades — starting with one of it most recently funded projects, a trip to Costa Rica for 14 Vashon High School Spanish language students.

Students see the world and feed their minds

This June, 14 Vashon Island High School Spanish students embarked on a 13-day adventure to a remote corner of southern Costa Rica to connect with a culture and language.

In Costa Rica, the students performed community service and assisted with research and science-based conservation management at the Reserva Playa Tortuga, in the marine waters of the Osa Peninsula.

Working with scientists in a mature rain forest, and on the Pacific Coast, the students monitored resident wildlife populations. They also performed beach patrols for newly-laid sea turtle eggs, transporting the vulnerable eggs to a protective hatchery.

On day six of the expedition, students took a guided night walk through tropical rainforest and swamp terrain. Every few steps revealed something new and eye-popping – red-eyed tree frogs, or a spider the size of a student’s hand.

“I was so inspired that I’m considering [going] back for an internship and studying biology,” said participant Kaiya Von Brost.

VHS Spanish teacher Sarah Powell said she was grateful that PIE’s partial funding for the trip, and its long track record of funding other innovative projects.

“PIE has been making things happen for students for so long,” Powell said.

PIE’s mission hasn’t changed

In 1987, a group of Vashon islanders met to create a booster club for academics.

Bill Ameling, PIE board member emeritus, joined like-minded parents to form PIE. He said the idea was already in the air, waiting to coalesce.

To learn how to run a nonprofit, group members turned to established leadership organizations. To distribute funds, they settled on the concept of mini-grants. And to raise money, they opted to hold an annual phonathon, raising $3,000.00 that first year – about $7,824.00 in today’s money.

They did not foresee that over time, through the generosity of the island community, PIE would go on to funnel more than $1.7 million dollars to support teacher-designed programs, projects and activities – from early-education math to international learning opportunities.

In doing so, PIE stuck to its core mission: to enhance the learning environment in Vashon public schools by placing funds directly in the hands of the people closest to the educational process — local teachers — through a simple grant application process.

Donations of all sizes have fueled PIE

The biggest source of income for the group has always come from the community – from individuals, local businesses and foundations.

A gift from the estate of islander Robin Appleford allowed PIE to offer a separate grant application process on a rolling basis that students may apply for, as well as educators.

And for more than 10 years, PIE partnered with the popular Vashon Sheepdog Classic (VSDC). The group received donations from VSDC proceeds and earned additional funds through raffles, booth sales and Smart Dog Sponsorships sold in connection with the event.

“We have more than 50 donors who continue to donate after 30 years,” said current board president Karen Boyle. “Donations vary in size, but we can count on their loyal support every year. We also have newer donors who are making PIE part of their giving tradition. Every donation is an investment in our teachers and students.”

After administrative expenses, all money raised goes directly to fund teachers’ grant requests.

PIE’s influence has fanned out

In 35 years, PIE has awarded nearly 1,500 grants varying in size and scope for all grades and has also seeded partnerships and programs that have now become established curriculum.

PIE was one of the earliest funders of the 35-year-old Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA) Artists in Schools program — startup funding VCA has now used to leverage grants from larger organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Vashon Nature Center (VNC) received its first PIE grants in 2014, to support curricula that have now expanded into a district-wide Science in Schools program. For this program, VNC now receives additional funding from the Vashon Schools Foundation and outside sources, including a 2021 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Music programs have thrived in the schools, with PIE’s steadfast support.

Starting in 1987, now-retired teacher Carolyn Candy obtained support from PIE to build, over several years, a collection of musical instruments which eventually allowed entire classrooms of Chautauqua Elementary School students to play together.

In 2022, band teacher Britt Dahlgren received a $10,000 PIE grant for long-overdue repairs of much-played musical instruments used in the school district’s band program. While giving students the opportunity to try different instruments, and substitute those undergoing repairs, the Instrument Repairs grant also allows students who may not be able to commit to a purchase or rental agreement to borrow an instrument.

Vashon High School’s popular guitar-building class, which was kick-started with a PIE grant in 2018, now has Career and Technical Education class standing, with separate funding.

PIE stepped up during pandemic

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when teachers pivoted to implement new models of learning in real time, PIE supported those changes.

In the spring of 2020 and throughout 2021, unforeseen “emergency” funding buttressed more than 40 projects that supplied at-home art supplies, new library books, virtual field trips and innovative learning experiences to augment online learning.

In the fall of 2020, 7th-grade Humanities teacher Becky Blankenship received PIE support for her “Bringing the World to our Classroom Books” program — a grant request that PIE approved in one week.

And when students and teachers returned to classrooms in the Spring of 2021, PIE was there to help them make the transition.

Volunteers with staying power

More than 80 individuals have served on the board since 1987, with many serving multiple terms – providing consistent support for PIE’s values and purpose.

Current board president Karen Boyle served seven years prior to taking the lead three years ago.

Another long-time board member, Phyllis Davis, joined the PIE board in 1995 and continues to serve because she sees ongoing constraints on the school district’s budget.

“This is especially true for creative and enrichment activities that help keep students engaged in the curriculum,” Davis said.

Former board president and current volunteer Jenna Riggs said she loves PIE’s simplicity.

“Money comes in, gets granted, and goes out into the classroom that same school year,” Riggs said. “The board funds as much as possible with what [money] they have at the time, and then starts over the next school year.”

PIE invites all past board members, donors, grant recipients and interested islanders to celebrate its 35th anniversary, from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, at Vashon High School. PIE’s phonathon starts the week of Oct. 10.

Contributions can also be made by returning a donation-request mailer, or online at, where past PIE grants are also detailed.