Our Stories

School District to Pandemic Hero PEF: Thanks, Partner

PEF In the News: First published in the Oct. 21 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
By Camila Castellanos

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is not quite in the rearview mirror, the recent strides in reopening public schools and extracurricular and enrichment activities have given the Pasadena Unified School District cause to celebrate those who helped local children keep learning during the past 19 months.

In recognizing the tremendous obstacles overcome during the unprecedented shutdown of in-person education and services, the PUSD recently named the Pasadena Educational Foundation its Community Partner of the Year.

“The last year was a time of extraordinary challenges, and it is more important than ever that we honor the outstanding employees and community partners who brought innovative thinking and care to their work for our students and families,” Superintendent Brian McDonald said recently. “This is a well-deserved recognition of the educators and community partners who stepped up to keep our students learning and growing.”

Perhaps no one can quite describe the foundation better than PEF itself when it presents its mission: “Every student. Every school. Every day.”

When the pandemic sent children home and then shifted them to remote learning, myriad hardships kept many of them from attending virtual school — or thriving in it — including a lack of proper nutrition, internet access or adults to help them, or inadequate surroundings in which to study properly. In response, PEF put every connection it had forged in its nearly 50-year history into motion to deliver a swift emergency response fund. That ultimately included the delivery of 660,000 meals for PUSD students and families, technology needs and 3D printing of face shields to help protect children, employees and volunteers. At one point, the nonprofit stepped in to help pay the utility bill of a family whose power had been shut off.

“The pandemic surfaced certain inequities that have existed in our society and therefore in our school system,” McDonald said, recalling how PEF stepped in to fill gaps in learning. Though the district already provided each student with a laptop to each student and supplied hot-spot devices as well, some families with multiple students still had difficulty accessing the bandwidth necessary for streaming.
“The support that the Pasadena Educational Foundation provides our schools is essential to keeping our momentum going,” McDonald added. “Our schools are stronger today and will be even stronger tomorrow thanks to this outstanding partnership.”

Foundation Executive Director Patrick Conyers credits his organization’s long-standing relationship with principals, teachers and administrators for PEF’s ability to quickly pivot to support the remote learning experience. “That relationship building that’s been cultivated over the years and decades really benefited everyone in this kind of crisis,” he said. “We were able to get feedback in real time from our colleagues in PUSD about what gaps needed to be filled and how the community could step in and support the great work that the district was doing. There were immediate concerns that became paramount, where learning couldn’t happen if other problems weren’t resolved first.

“We’ve always wanted to be as impactful as we can in the educational experience of the students of Pasadena Unified. And that essence of who we are and what we try to accomplish didn’t change during the pandemic,” Conyers added.

PEF was founded in 1971 with the belief that “strong schools build strong communities and strong communities build strong schools.” Since then, the nonprofit has assisted the district with millions in monetary support through grants and donations, creating integrated arts and music programs, STEM enrichment opportunities, summer school, health centers and gardens, and more. It has also created a thriving teacher grant program across the district.

Though that mission to create a more robust educational experience has not changed, the nonprofit has realized the value of its ability to remain nimble and open to adjustments, Conyers added.

PEF marketing director Monica Lopez agreed, recalling the satisfaction after wrapping up the summer enrichment program, in which students and teachers came back together in person after so much time apart. The energy and relief in being together once again felt palpable, she recalled.

“It was incredibly challenging with the shifting sands of every day, trying to make decisions and as you’re making them something else changes, again and again. But knowing how vital our summer program was, not just for the learning but for connecting our community to our schools, and schools to each other and the kids together, that connection is huge,” she said.

One of the most impactful things about PEF, McDonald said, has been its recognition of the need to fill a gap in inequities and provide all the “extras” other districts are privileged to have.

“Patrick, Monica and the rest of the team are amazing. They immediately came alongside us and really worked hard to make a difference in how we responded to the pandemic,” McDonald said. “The PEF board is especially steadfast in their commitment to the district. They are consistent in ensuring that our district is supported and enhanced in so many ways.

“They are currently working very closely with us to examine ways to better serve traditionally underserved students in our district by focusing both the district’s and PEF’s work through the lens of equity,” he added. “I truly don’t know how we would function without them.”

While PEF intends to push forward with more urgency than ever, Conyers admitted that the salute from the PUSD felt like a good moment to pause to recognize his team’s outstanding work.

“It’s very nice to be acknowledged for the hard work of our board, staff and volunteers — it was a very nice surprise,” Conyers said. “I think it speaks to the passion that our entire team has for what we do. … It really has been one of the great pleasures of my professional career to see so many smart and dedicated people really pushing themselves over this past year and a half to do things that benefited others in a profound way. Now, we have to figure out what lessons we learned and turn to the future to be a bigger or better or stronger, more impactful organization going forward.”