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Smithfield Foods gives $3 million to its hometown high school

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Print this page by Greg Kremer
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Dennis Treacy, the president of the Smithfield Foundation.
Photos by Mark Rhodes

The nation’s largest pork processor has made a major donation to a high school in its backyard.

Earlier this year, Smithfield Foods announced a $3 million gift to Smithfield High School. The town (which has a population of 8,000) has been the company’s home since Smithfield Packing Co. opened there in 1936. Smithfield Foods today has annual revenue of $14 billion. Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., a Chinese company, acquired it in 2013.

“We are looking to show the Isle of Wight and Smithfield communities that we are here to stay and that they are an important part of Smithfield Foods,” says Dennis Treacy, president of the Smithfield Foundation.

The money will be used to establish a new Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) field house, a multiuse pavilion and a “makerspace,” which will be used to teach students manufacturing and engineering skills.

Treacy says that the Smithfield High donation is the third-largest donation ever made by the company and the biggest it has ever given to a high school.

“Sometimes it’s easy to look away from the public schools, but our current CEO, Ken Sullivan, is very much a public-school fan,” Treacy says. He notes that, while grants to colleges are common, cash-strapped public schools often don’t get corporate donations.

The donation fulfills a $10 million capital campaign launched by Isle of Wight County Schools, which will benefit Smithfield and Windsor high schools.  In addition to the $3 million grant, the school district will take on a $7.9 million loan to develop vocational courses at the high schools.

The project is being initiated at a time when career and technical education is getting more emphasis in Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S. The commonwealth is working on an overhaul of its high school graduation requirements, which will apply to freshman students in 2018.

These requirements have not yet been finalized, but the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) must establish multiple paths for students to be ready for college or careers after high school. Those paths could include participation in internships, externships and credentials programs, a major component of CTE.

sle of Wight County Schools already is planning to allow students to spend more time in CTE classes. The school system eventually plans to implement a new schedule that would allow students to exclusively focus on CTE classes every other week.

“I think once we have our new schedule in place, that is going to put us, Smithfield High School and Windsor High School, ahead of the pack as far as really giving students in the area of Career and Technical Education time to do hands-on work,” says Jim Thornton, superintendent of Isle of Wight County Schools.

The new CTE center is expected to result in significant savings for Smithfield High School.  Currently, the school buses CTE students to the Pruden Center for Industry and Technology at a cost of about $950,000 annually.  The new career center will allow the school to teach CTE skills on campus, saving about $750,000 a year that it would have spent on transportation and fees.  Thornton says these savings will be used to pay down the $7.9 million loan over the course of 13 years.  With interest, the total amount to be repaid will be $9.3 million.

The new career center will be housed in a building behind the school, which will be retrofitted for the project.  Previously this building was used for carpentry and automotive classes.  Once the renovations are completed, the building will contain spaces for students to learn a wide variety of trades.  These will include culinary skills, cosmetology, welding and engineering.  Students also will be able to learn to design products in the makerspace using equipment, such as laser cutters and 3-D printers, says Casey Roberts, Smithfield High School’s principal.  The goal also is to make the makerspace available to the general public.

“We want to open up the makerspace in the evening, kind of like a Y membership, and have someone there to teach adults in the community how to use 3-D printers and laser cutters,” Thornton says.

Smithfield High currently has a makerspace that includes two classrooms, but the one being funded by the Smithfield Foods donation will be much larger and have more equipment.  The new space will be able to comfortably seat 30 people, Thornton says.

The multiuse pavilion will be a large freestanding meeting room, with a kitchen that can be used by culinary students or community members.  All three projects are scheduled to be completed within three years.

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