Local graduate challenges stigmas, provides safe space
9:58 p.m. PST December 19, 2015
Growing up in Salem, Elisabeth Herrera was embarrassed to say where she went to school.
Though she was proud to attend Stephens Middle School and McKay High School, she thought many people looked down on those schools.
“McKay and North got a bad reputation,” she said. “I felt limited — not by my school, but by my community.”
Herrera, 27, now works as a private counselor with the goal of empowering students and families in Salem, especially those who may have felt the same kind of discrimination.
Growing up, Herrera said, friends from other schools would ask whether she feared going to school at McKay.
At McKay, more than 80 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunches, more than 60 percent are Hispanic, and some gangs operate in the area.
These factors combined over the years to portray area students as being low-income and gang-involved.
“But did I feel that way? No. Never,” she said. “I felt like (we) had a large mountain to climb.”
She said she felt as if people pitied her and assumed her education wasn’t good enough.
Aimee Reynolds, a teacher, coach and graduate of McKay High School, said she has experienced similar responses from the community.
“The school has changed since I graduated in ’95, but it has always had some of the same stigma,” Reynolds said. “The community has a perception of the school that isn’t completely accurate.”
Reynolds said those perceptions couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I love it here,” she said. “It’s a great place to work; there is a great staff, great kids. I have never once felt unsafe.”
How it hurts
Negative, inaccurate perceptions can be harmful to students.
A study by Elizabeth Pinel, Leah Warner and Poh-Pheng Chua for the Journal of Social Issues found that college-aged, non-white males predicted lower GPAs and greater disengagement the more they were aware of the stigmas of their race or class.
Similarly, for stigmatized, non-white females, the more they were aware of their stigmas, they, too, became less engaged with school and had lower self-esteem.
Some studies have shown the correlation between disengagement and lower self-esteem with student success.
According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, “The human brain ‘downloads’ the environment indiscriminately in an attempt to understand and absorb the surrounding world, whether that world is positive or negative.
“When children gain a sense of mastery of their environments, they are more likely to develop feelings of self-worth, confidence, and independence, which play heavily into the formation of children’s personalities and ultimately predict their success and happiness in relationships and life in general.”
Jay Remy, a spokesman for the Salem-Keizer School District, said the district works to ensure all schools are appreciated.
“Our vision is that all students graduate prepared for a successful life,” he said. “We want to give everyone a chance to succeed regardless of their family’s income level.
“Negative perceptions are not helpful, so we try to promote positive perceptions by highlighting student and staff achievements.”
Part of the problem with negative perceptions is that students can feel they are not good enough.
“We think of student achievement kind of like a team sport where you want a huge fan base,” Remy said. “We do whatever we can to put the positive images and stories out there to build up the fan base for our schools.
“We really don’t want anyone saying negative things about any of our schools because it doesn’t help build support for the staff and students.”
“We have some students who have more challenges, for whatever reason,” Reynolds said. “But we also get to see how they work through those challenges.”
Reynolds said she hopes the positive perceptions the students and staff have inside the school will work their way through the community.
Herrera is doing her part to make that happen. She attended Lane Community College and Oregon State University. Working full-time, she earned her bachelor’s degree in five years, before going to graduate school at George Fox University. She became a counselor with her own practice in Salem.
“I grew up here,” she said. “I love my community.”
Challenging the stigma
In the book “Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap,” author Paul C. Gorski said, “In our efforts to become equity literate educators, one of our first tasks is to understand our own socializations and the ways in which we have bought into the stereotypes that hinder our abilities to connect with low-income families, or any families, in the most authentic, open way.”
Herrera said she works to do just that.
Herrera works with students from across Salem, but said hopes more students from North utilize her services once they know about them.
“The results I’ve seen thus far is a sense of relief for kids having someone to talk to about their lives,” she said. “I sometimes have clients where the main concern is academic achievement in school, so sometimes there’s the change of a positive increase in grades. But mostly it’s just about providing a safe space.”
Students get referred to her mostly for anxiety, depression, and experience of life events that can be stressful.
“There has been a general tone I would say about what the ‘good’ schools are in Salem,” she said. “I don’t make it my professional mission to defend North Salem-area schools, but it is important to me that when the families in those areas need someone to turn to, they can trust that I will never make assumptions.”
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For more information
Contact Elisabeth Herrera at (971) 208-5885 or EHcounseling@gmail.com.