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Newly elected candidates provide more Latinx representation on Salem-Keizer school board

The Salem-Keizer school district is the second largest school district in Oregon and serves a large Latinx student body. A progressive slate of newcomers ran for school board seats hoping to better serve the Latinx families who they say have been largely unheard in past decision-making. We speak with two newly elected school board members, Osvaldo Avila in Zone 1 and Maria Hinojos Pressey in Zone 7, on their motivations to run and what goals they have for Salem-Keizer schools.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer

From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The second largest school district in Oregon is about to have some new leadership. A progressive slate of newcomers ran for school board seats earlier this month. Among their reasons, they want the district to better serve Latinex families who say they’ve been largely unheard in past decision making. Two members of this progressive slate won. The two others are leading in very close races. We’re going to have more ballot returns coming in just today, later today, but I’m joined now by those two winners. Osvaldo Avila is Board member-elect for Zone One and Maria Hinojosa Presi is going to represent Zone Seven. Welcome to you both.

Osvaldo and Hinojosa-Presi:  Great to be here.

Miller: Osvaldo Avila, you wrote in response to a candidate questionnaire from the ‘Statesmen Journal’ in Salem. That quote: ‘I know from personal experience what it is like to be a student failed by our schools.’ How did schools fail you when you were growing up?

Avila: Thank you Dave for that question. I believe, you know, just looking back at my history, my family’s history of being, my parents being immigrant farm workers, they left their homeland and struggled here with their language and being able to communicate effectively to our schools, that we needed the right resources, and then their ability to just, you know, guide us and saying, you know, an education is going to change your life, get your education. They didn’t exactly know how; we didn’t have the educational capital, that really was kind of dismissed. Throughout my education in high school, I felt I was treated more of an athlete to more of a number than than an actual student, and really having the resources and the motivation and encouragement to pursue an opportunity to seek a high school career, a trade or college university. I had to learn that on my own. About three years after graduating high school when I finally decided that education is what I needed to pursue. And I didn’t, I don’t feel like I really received that, our students are not receiving that here, continuously.

Miller: Before we get to Salem Keizer. Today, I’m still curious about the lessons you drew from your own experience. You did end up going to Chemeketa Community College and then getting a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. What made the difference for you?

Avila: When I enrolled at Chemeketa Community College and I  met students that wanted to, similar backgrounds like my immigrant families, farm working families, low income, we struggled to have that knowledge information, how to succeed in what path to take, and what applications to complete and not understanding that full process. You know, I became a student leader and I started recruiting students, high school students, into Chemeketa Community College, and just learning and hearing those experiences, and me being more aware and understanding how the systems are working and being informed. That, you know, I was really involved with the school. That was the other part, becoming involved with the school and having a family that,  being supported by educators, who just wanted to see you succeed. So I wanted to give that opportunity to students that I was recruiting and just advising them and them asking me questions and then I learned I can make it a career. So that’s when I I found PACE over at Portland State University and I switched from a business background to pursue this Masters of Education and get back to my community, get back to students, get back to family and use my voice, use my experiences being bilingual and Spanish, being bicultural, with my Mexican heritage and culture. So that really motivated me, you know, hearing just [Unintelligible????] have to give lots of inspiration to my wife, hurrying her struggles, her barriers and her being so successful in overcoming those barriers by just true grit. You know, and I realized that I need to be able to give students back the same type of resources and support and encouragement.

Miller: Maria Hinojosa Presi. I’m curious for you, the extent to which your own experiences in K- 12 schools or later, how those affected your decision to seek this seat on the Salem Keizer School Board.

Hinojosa-Presi: Well, I think some experiences are universal, but I did grow up in two different states, Kansas and New Mexico, respectively. So those cultures are a little bit different than what we have out here in Oregon, but I still witnessed a lot of the same injustices that some of our students face. A lot of inaction from the people that we’re trusting to educate and take care of our children whenever our children are facing severe bullying or  almost like a criminalization of some of our students.  I think it’s really detrimental to our students’ mental health when we’re writing them off at such a young age.

Miller: When you say writing them off, what do you mean? What are the policies that you would specifically like to address now that you can?

Hinojosa-Presi: Yeah, well, I know that here in this school district at Salem-Keizer are BIPOC students are definitely punished at higher rates than are their white counterparts. And a lot of that times, it just seems like there’s more of a harsh reprimand and quicker desire to suspend and expel our BIPOC students for maybe some similar infractions. And I just think that we all really need to remember that we’re raising these children to come into our societies, to get jobs or go to college and then later enter the workforce and we do want to make sure that they’re empathetic and have the skills that are necessary, and not just pushing them out of our school district because we deem them to be too difficult.

Miller: Osvaldo Avila, according to the district, 44% of students in Salem-Keizer schools right now are Hispanic. In your mind and based on what you’ve heard from families as you were running or or just living there, how is the district doing for this for almost half of its student population?

Osvaldo Avil:  We’re, there’s progress being made, but there’s opportunities to grow the success and be able to provide our students with, you know, challenging, rigorous academic opportunities that they can pursue that prepare them better for entering the workforce or pursuing their career and trade or college university journeys. And we need to do more of that. We need to continue to increase and diversify our educators of color. They, our students need to be able to see themselves within the positions of leadership. I think our Superintendent is doing great and making progress. They just made a great hire, a Salem-Keizer, former educator and administrator, rose the ranks and now she’s Superintendent for Elementary Curriculum. So we need to continue to focus on that, provide our students access, making sure that they’re being assessed appropriately so that their academics fits their needs and they’re not being placed into and shoved into  possible ESL Classes like in the past that we have a history of doing and being excluded from AP courses. We’re going to continue to grow the IB  Programs here in the school district, we’re excited for North Salem High School to start their program. We’re excited to see more diverse staff slowly, but we need to also focus on retaining them. And I think that’s what we have to prioritize, retaining our and supporting our BIPOC  staff so that they don’t get burned out. And we need to continue as Maria had mentioned to really understand why our students are being punished, our BIPOC population is being punished more frequently at higher rates. That requires, you know, some cultural training, understanding our families better with so many complexities. We need to be able to address those issues.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with two of the incoming members of the Salem Keizer School Board Maria Hinojosa Presi is going to represent Zone Seven and Osvaldo Avila Is going to represent Zone One. You know, we’re talking about overseeing the second largest school district in the state. Obviously at a time, that’s been unprecedented in any of our lives where school for the most part, has not been in person, and still is not for the most part in person, especially in the largest districts. Osvaldo, first, how much did your own family’s experience of the pandemic school-wise affect your decision to run for this seat?

Avila: I don’t think it was so much the pandemic part of the process. I mean, I felt that I was already on the path to pursue and seek out the school board race. I remember back in 2019 and I started and I was, you know, from my professional job, I was doing a community roundtable tour around the state, trying to understand how we can increase graduation and completion and our post secondary landscape here in Oregon. Just listening to families and parents and professionals for most sectors of the business, the sectors of the economy and I’m sharing how we were not heard. We are brought to the tables but our share of knowledge is not taken. And it’s like if we were just being pedestaled. So I think that was the real drive to choose to run for the school board and just talking to my network of individuals and communities. And I’ve received the support from our coalition, and I did see my students, my own Children struggle here. I’ve been fortunate to work from home and have been working since,  and was able to be here with my son and daughter and be able to assist them, as I could. But I can see the struggles, I can see the struggles now that they’re going back to two days a week. But I wouldn’t say the pandemic was a real factor in me choosing to run.

Miller: Maria Hinojos Pressey, Have there been aspects of what’s been exposed because of the pandemic that you will be focused on as a member of the school board?

Pressey:  Oh yeah, definitely. I think we’re all really concerned about what our students, our children have been going through in this last year just knowing that some folks really didn’t have access to a lot of the necessary materials to be able to have the full education and really concerned about, not just where they’re going to be academically once we’re back in person, but where they’re going to be at mentally, because they’ve gone through something very traumatic and a very delicate time of their lives, and that’s one of the things that I’m very concerned about going forward.

Miller: Maria Hinojos Pressey first, and Osvaldo Villa, I’d love to get your take on this as well. How are you going to know that you’re succeeding? I mean what is your own metric for doing well in this new position?

Pressey: Personally, I think, is that we just need to hit the ground and rebuild the trust with the community. We need to make sure that we’re going to be doing the outreach to the same folks that we were talking with in our campaign and beyond. We need to make sure that as Osvaldo Avila said that folks are getting a seat at the table but actually being listened to and respected and heard and for us, well for myself personally, I think just my metric right now is maintaining a pulse on the community and their sentiments.

Miller: Osvaldo Avila. What about you? How are you going to say for yourself that you have succeeded?

Avila: Yeah, I think we have to recognize this. The first Latino, Latina, LatinX  two members of the community to serve on this in the Keizer School District in history, is a great success, but we have lots of work to do and I couldn’t agree more with Maria. It’s, we’re doing this for the community for our students, our children to be able to provide a desk, an education that is focused on progressive, progressing our resources, our educators and giving our students top notch education and opportunities to expose them to careers that are, that this world needs, and it’s growing daily. So I think being able to say that if we provide that structure, support our educators and inspire our students, that will be, we will be successful.

Miller: Osvaldo Avila and Maria Hinojos Pressey, thanks very much for joining us.

Avila / Pressey: Thank you so much for having us. Thank you. Good afternoon

Miller: You, too. Osvaldo Avila is a newly elected school board member for Zone One of the Salem Keizer School District, and Maria Hinojosa Presi is going to represent Zone Seven for the school board.

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Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kanani Cortez