Resume: She teaches health and physical education at Cheldelin Middle School. She’s the cross-country and track coach at Cheldelin. Before that, she taught fifth grade and worked as a kindergarten through eighth-grade PE teacher in Arizona. As a student, she earned a cross-country/track and field scholarship to Washington State University; in a Pac-12 Conference championship meet held in Corvallis, she finished eighth.
From the nomination: “When Isley joined us at Cheldelin as our only certified staff of color, she immediately began to ask hard, critical questions about racial equity practices at our school. … (S)he has given a voice to our students of color and helped our predominantly white community become more compassionate and inclusive.”
Family: Children, Graye, 8, and Payce, 3.
Hobbies: Running, reading, spending time with family.
By MIKE McINALLY
For Isley Gonzalez, moving from Arizona to Corvallis to teach at Cheldelin Middle School involved a cultural shock.
“The students that I worked with in Arizona, it was a very diverse population,” said Gonzalez. “And then I moved up here, and it was a predominately white town, white school, not as diverse — and some of the things that I noticed right away were just a lot of racist remarks being said throughout the hallways and the classroom and things like that.”
Others might have shrugged that off, written it off as part of acclimation to a new community.
But Gonzalez didn’t do that. Instead, she started working – almost immediately – to change the culture at the school.
Now, six years into her tenure at Cheldelin, Gonzalez’s colleagues say the culture at the school has changed among students – and also among faculty and staff. And, her colleagues say, it’s a change that wouldn’t have happened without Gonzalez. It’s among the reasons why she was honored with a Golden Apple Award from the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation.
The work started her first year teaching health and physical education at Cheldelin, as Gonzalez noticed that students of color “were feeling very isolated and not feeling seen. … Even when I started at Cheldelin, a lot of students of color started following me around, even though I wasn’t their teacher. It was just because they felt connected to me a little bit.”
Gonzalez could empathize with those students: “I had my own struggles, just being a person of color – all of my coworkers were white, and in Arizona, that wasn’t the case. So there was an isolation that I had felt as well. So I knew that, as an adult, if I was feeling this way, and if comments were being made toward me, then my students were definitely feeling this way too. And I saw it in the classroom and throughout the hallways.”
Her second year at the school, she started a diversity club that met once a week during lunch. She provided snacks to go along with the lunch – and also provided the safe space where students could “talk about their experiences with race and racism in Corvallis and at Cheldelin.”
At the end of that year, the students in the club made a presentation to the entire student body.
“They just all told stories about their experiences being students of colors and the things that had happened to them,” Gonzalez said. “It was really the students’ idea; we just kind of gave them the platform and said, ‘We’ll support you and whatever you would like to say is going to be OK.’ That’s what they wanted to do. They wanted to tell their stories. It was extremely brave. It was a very emotional day for them.”
And it was a critical day in terms of creating space to move forward.
“Students and staff did not know that this was really happening,” she said, “and so it kind of went from there. It was really like our students getting us started because they had the space to move forward.”
In the years following that presentation, Gonzalez has spearheaded other anti-racism efforts at Cheldelin – efforts that have spread throughout the school district. Cheldelin created affinity groups for students of color and started a program called Speak Up for Equity, in which students and staff members are honored for speaking out against racism. Cheldelin was the first middle school to launch a branch of Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE), in which students provide their perspective on race and inclusion issues in their school and throughout Corvallis. (Thanks in part to funding from the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation, each school in the district now has a SAFE chapter – and each school now has one teacher assigned to focus on equity issues.)
Gonzalez gives credit to Cheldelin’s Equity Team for supporting the work and highlighting the school’s students of color.
Similarly, Cheldelin’s faculty and staff have been supportive of her efforts – even when they involved uncomfortable conversations.
“The first time you have it, the conversation is hard, but then it just gets easier and easier,” she said. “We’re to the point at Cheldelin where we’ve been comfortable for so long for the last couple of years that it’s just becoming a lot easier to have those conversations.”
But, most importantly, Gonzalez gives credit to the students she’s worked with for having the courage to start those conversations – and to carry them to the community outside the school walls.
“My students are community members of Corvallis, and they’re going home and having these conversations with their families and their friends, and just by having these conversations, the community is growing,” she said. “I tell my students this every day, but they’re the ones who are going to make the change. Change takes time, and if they’re educating themselves now in middle school, by the time they’re young adults, they’re going to make some big changes for the better. That’s exciting.”