Foundation History

Transforming the lives of young people through public education.

Isadora Kosofsky/CatchLight for Stuart Foundation

For nearly four decades, the Stuart Foundation has cultivated the conditions for adolescents in California and Washington state to thrive.

The Stuart Foundation was established in 1985. Since its founding, the Foundation has invested in people, programs, and ideas that improve the lives of youth in California and Washington state and has been committed to transforming systems to realize sustained improvements in educational opportunities and outcomes for young people, especially those furthest from opportunity.

During its first decade of work, the Foundation’s investments focused primarily on supporting those working directly with children and youth, including people and practices at the school level.

This included supporting the professional development of teachers, promoting distributed leadership at school sites, educating school board members, and supporting teacher leaders to develop interdisciplinary high school curriculum, like the Humanitas Program in Los Angeles, which promoted a teacher-designed, student-centered instructional model in high school. In addition to grantmaking, program staff supported the dissemination of lessons learned to build field knowledge and improve the capacity of practitioners. Through evaluations, research, presentations at conferences, and demonstration sites, grantees shared their approaches and outcomes so that others might learn from their experiences.

Since its inception, the Foundation has also been committed to improving the conditions and opportunities for foster youth – work that continues to be a central element of our portfolio and strategy.  Our initial grantmaking focused on providing safe and permanent, stable living situations for foster youth – with a focus on preserving family connections – and on early investments in critical organizations like the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) programs in both California and Washington state. Over time, the Foundation gradually shifted its focus to improving the larger child welfare system and on the educational experience of foster youth, while still maintaining its child welfare investments on the ground.

By 1994, the Foundation began to shift its focus away from direct services and toward grantees focused on systems-level improvements.

In its education program, Strengthening Systems that Serve Children, Youth and Their Families, the Foundation increased its focus on larger public systems, rather than individual programs or sites.  In 1995, it also began supporting the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning to help promote policies and practices to develop, strengthen, and sustain a high-quality teaching force capable of educating all of California’s students effectively. The overarching goal of many grantees at the time was to shine a light on critical equity gaps by focusing on better data collection. This included improving data about teacher assignments to understand gaps and move toward ensuring that that every California student had a qualified teacher.  The Foundation’s support of educator leadership grew to include principals and the structures surrounding them, as well as networks to support systems leaders.

In 2005, the Foundation collaborated with the Gates, Irvine, and Hewlett Foundations to support Getting Down to Facts, a research project examining California’s school governance and finance systems.  The $2.6 million study, released in 2007, was credited with laying the groundwork for comprehensive school finance reform.  The Foundation continued to build essential field knowledge through analysis and dissemination of additional research studies, invested in several innovative school finance modeling tools, and supported state-level and local advocacy efforts focused on adequate and equitable funding. These efforts contributed to creating the conditions necessary for the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in 2013. California’s sweeping school finance and accountability reform became a cornerstone of the Foundation’s strategy that continues to this day. 

The Foundation’s longstanding Child Welfare program evolved over time to focus on Foster Youth Education, which has been the main focus of this work since 2016.

Over the last few decades, the Foundation has invested significant resources in research to guide policy and practice to improve outcomes for vulnerable youth. From 2005 to 2015, the Foundation supported several organizations and invested significant resources to design and launch two key initiatives – California College Pathways and Education Equals Partnership – to improve the post-secondary and K-12 educational experiences and outcomes of foster youth. Both initiatives resulted in significant policy shifts and greater attention on the needs and experiences of young people, and on their role in shaping programs and policies, including the explicit inclusion of foster youth among the prioritized populations under LCFF.  Significant investment in research also contributed to the growing attention on marginalized youth, including support for the publication of The Invisible Achievement Gap series of reports by WestEd.

While “standards-based reform” approaches dominated education reform efforts from the late 1990s to the end of No Child Left Behind in 2015, the Foundation took a balanced approach to our work.

This included recognizing that public education systems needed to move away from a focus on narrowly defined academic measures to one that promoted the holistic development and success of all youth, especially youth furthest from opportunity.  On the practice side, during the early to mid-2000s, the Stuart Foundation deepened its focus on adolescence, including:

  • Youth Development, especially youth media creation (2000 – 2012)  
  • Community Schools in California and in Washington state (2002 – 2012)  
  • High School Transformation, with a focus on college and career pathways (2012 – present)  

The Foundation’s investments to advance systems during this time focused on supporting and encouraging professional learning experiences and networks of state level decision-makers, district leaders, and practitioners to strengthen the policy-practice loop. This work was designed to focus on the “right drivers” and invest in capacity-building and continuous improvement initiatives at all levels of the ecosystem, with a particular interest in school districts as levers of change. The Foundation also increased its investments in advocacy and organizing, youth voice, and family engagement.

While maintaining a constant focus on coherence and alignment at the state level, in 2016 the Foundation organized its grantmaking into four inter-related portfolios:  

  • School Finance and Accountability;   
  • Educator Leadership;   
  • Adolescent Development and Learning for Democracy; and
  • Creativity and Arts Education.  

Throughout the Foundation’s history, its leadership and staff have approached the work with humility and a learning orientation. The overarching goal: to advance transformational systems change so all young people thrive.

In 2020, staff approached the work with renewed urgency in the context of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s ongoing struggle to confront a legacy of racism and structural inequities.  This spirit of urgency led to a refined strategy in 2022, informed by the Foundation’s history and by reflection and deep listening with the Trustees, staff, community, grantee partners, and colleagues in philanthropy. The feedback was clear: maintain the focus on adolescent youth and continue to push for a holistic systems approach to education to create more just and equitable learning experiences. In January 2022, the Foundation announced its strategy would focus on Thriving Adolescents and Transforming Systems for Equity.  

Elbridge Amos Stuart (known as E. A.), founder of the Carnation Company, established what is now known as the Stuart Foundation.

Then and now, the Foundation is dedicated to the protection, education, and development of children and youth.  Six family members serve on the Foundation’s Board. 

E. A. Stuart was born on September 10, 1856 to a Quaker family of humble means in Guilford County, North Carolina.  In his early years, E. A. started at least three distinct business ventures, none of which were successful. Never giving up, he kept searching for the right opportunity.  In 1899, E.A. joined with his business partner to begin the Pacific Coast Milk Company in Kent, Washington.   Its product was based on the relatively new process of commercial evaporation of beverages. E. A. believed that there was value in sanitary milk at a time when fresh milk was neither universally available nor always drinkable.   

One of the most important lessons that E. A. Stuart had learned on his father’s farm was that high-quality milk came from healthy cows.  E. A. established a breeding farm, named Carnation Farms, where the application of new principles of animal husbandry continually improved the productivity of the farmers’ herds, enabling those farmers to earn better livings while helping Carnation to produce higher quality finished products. The town of Tolt, Washington, was later renamed Carnation after the nearby breeding and research farms.  

E. A. Stuart firmly believed in family, people, and community and hired like-minded people who continued on after him. The success of evaporated milk laid a strong foundation for an enterprise that expanded into many other popular product lines and across the globe. These included fresh milk and ice cream, Albers large animal feed, Friskies brand pet foods, Contadina brand of Italian and pasta products, Coffee mate, and Instant Breakfast. In 1985, the company was sold to Nestlé and proceeds from the sale led to the creation of the Foundation’s endowment.