A conversation with the foundation Chair, Ashlee Chavez

By Mike McInally

This is the fifth story in a five-part series on how the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation has pivoted to address pandemic-related needs.

The Corvallis Public Schools Foundation was able to move quickly to help students and families cope with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic – but plenty of work remains to help create equity in education.

That’s the word from Ashlee Chavez, the chair of the foundation’s board of trustees. In a recent interview, Chavez – whose day job is serving as director of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library – reflected on a year of unprecedented challenges prompted by the pandemic and the work that will remain, even after COVID-19 finally loosens its grip.

As the pandemic forced the closure of school buildings and mandated a switch to distance learning, the foundation moved quickly to fund programs to funnel basic needs, such as food and hygiene supplies, to families. It also bankrolled a summer program, “Care and Connect,” in which teachers and other district employees stayed in touch with families.

Chavez said that the foundation’s trustees knew early on that the pandemic would force them to think creatively and to move quickly – in part, because their board training had emphasized “how so many of our students rely on the school as an anchor in their lives, whether that be for food security or acting as a place of child care for parents or just providing a safe place to be during the day.”

That training emphasized “students who are navigating poverty and homelessness,” she said. And so, as soon as the implications of the pandemic started to come into focus, “it was just really clear to us right away that we were going to have to pivot and be flexible and adaptable and try to fund some different kinds of programming. … There wasn’t a hesitation at all on anyone’s part.”

And the foundation’s relatively small size when compared to the school district gave it the ability to move quickly at a time when speed was critical. “Because we’re a smaller agency, we were able to be more nimble and to provide support exactly where (the district) needed it,” Chavez said.

But, she emphasized, another factor – community support – quickly came into play as well.

“We got a great response from so many people,” Chavez said. “The generosity and quick responsiveness of donors was a big part of it, too.”

Even with that outpouring of support, however, she still thinks the foundation needs to do more to spread the word about its work, “so either people know that there’s a need they can give to or, if they are in need, there’s an organization working to provide resources for them that they might not even be aware of.”

And that’s just one of the items on the foundation’s “to-do” list.

“There’s so much work ahead of us still,” Chavez said. “The gap that already existed between folks who have resources and those who struggle in that space just continues to widen, and now more so than ever. … Some kids maybe are more apt to be successful with remote learning, and others are not. So we have to find a way to help create equity in education now for all of our youth.”

She added another goal for the foundation: “How can we support our teachers and educators, because we’re asking a lot of them right now.”

The pandemic has required fast responses, and the ability to move quickly to solve new problems will continue to be tested, she said: “One thing we’ve learned with the pandemic is, all of a sudden, this new aspect of things will get thrown at us, and we really have to immediately figure out what our next step is.”

But, on another level, the pandemic hasn’t changed the fundamental mission of the foundation – to inspire learning, boost graduation rates and increase educational access.

“I feel as if our mission hasn’t changed,” Chavez said. “But sometimes the priority of what we’re funding or what we need to do has.”

Mike McInally is a freelance writer who lives and works in Corvallis, Oregon.