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Salerno Owens: 'I understand the struggle'
David Salerno Owens has a busy year ahead of him.
As the Lake Oswego School District's new director of equity and strategic initiatives, the former Lakeridge High School administrator will be tasked with creating a new atmosphere in the district — one that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion in a real, tangible way.
"Because of our upbringing, because of the world we live in, the people we associate with, we all hold certain biases," Salerno Owens says. "I want to ensure that my staff has an understanding of implicit bias, micro-aggressions and things that we all hold within ourselves. I want us as an organization to understand what the biases are that we bring to the table, so that we can actually provide a greater understanding of how we can be more inclusive and helpful to our students."
To make that happen, Salerno Owens will lead the development and implementation of the district's recently adopted strategic plan, which lists equity, diversity and inclusion as a top priority. The LOSD has also launched district and school-based equity teams and adopted other measures in response to a series of incidents at local schools — including racist graffiti scrawled on bathroom walls, an anti-Semitic photo posted to a cafeteria wall and a hateful Post-it note passed to an African American student.
According to Salerno Owens, having educators and students recognize their own biases will allow for everyone to learn from those incidents and move forward together.
"Gaining that understanding of our biases can widen our understanding of equity and how we can reach farther to include more students that in the past we might not have necessarily included," he says.
Salerno Owens also wants to focus on improving the district's curriculum and on using restorative practices when disciplinary action becomes necessary.
"When something does happen, we don't need to quickly run to punitive measures, but instead try to gain a greater understanding of how we can actually learn from particular situations so that everyone benefits from understanding how we can do things differently," he says. "I want to move away from the idea that if we look past it, things will be OK."
Before his promotion in March, Salerno Owens served as a Response to Intervention coordinator and freshman transition specialist at Lakeridge High School, a job that he says taught him how to recognize at-risk students and help lift them up.
The LOSD's Response to Intervention program uses instruction and assessment to identify the learners most at risk of dropping out. Interventions are planned and monitored to make sure students receive the help that they need to learn academic skills, develop better study habits and navigate secondary-level academics.
Salerno Owens also worked with students dealing with anxiety and those who had emotional or social issues.
"I like to seek out students who struggle to find themselves in the education system and have them feel that success," he says.
Salerno Owens says his background at Lakeridge will certainly help him do his job, but so will his upbringing in a low-income family and his experiences as a person of color.
"I understand the struggle. I have lived that struggle. I want to ensure that we have created an environment that allows any student that comes through our doors to become better," he says. "I want to push forward to find out how we can all come together to become better."
Before joining the LOSD, Salerno Owens was a GEAR UP Academic Advocate for Portland Public Schools for nearly three years, a job that included advising students on higher education opportunities through onsite visits, academic monitoring and building their confidence to pursue higher education.
He holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science and Government from Portland State University and a master's in Education/School Counseling and Guidance Services from Lewis & Clark College, and says he's happy to share his expertise and personal experiences to help the LOSD change.
"As someone who has lived the experience, I think there is an opportunity for us to just learn from one another, and I'm happy to be a part of helping lead that change," he says. "By building community understanding through empowering our students, we will be able to build trust between students and adults, students and students, and the community and the district."
Salerno Owens says he's excited about the challenges ahead and is looking forward to what promises to be a very busy year.
"There's so much opportunity to be so influential to so many students, as well as staff, teachers and administrators," he says. "There is so much that needs to be done, and if I can help change some folks so we're making them the best community members as possible, I think it will make a world of a difference for everyone."
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