Chavez counselor brings deep compassion – and a gecko – to help struggling kids

Chavez Elementary counselor Crystal Armstrong leads a lesson in a first-grade class about the parts of the brain. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Parents, students and colleagues nominated 53 local educators for Crystal Apple Awards this year. The award, given annually by the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, recognizes staff who make a significant difference in the lives of children.

A dozen winners will be announced at an awards ceremony Thursday evening. Leading up to the event, Salem Reporter is profiling three nominees who work with students outside a classroom.

Crystal Armstrong rarely stops moving.

As the school counselor for nearly 600 students at Chavez Elementary School, she floats between one-on-one talks with students and parents, classroom lessons and helping families get help outside the school.

But even in the midst of chaos, she’s calm, drawing students out of their shells by listening and reassuring them until they feel comfortable returning to class.

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 On a recent Wednesday morning, she bent over a boy who had stopped by her office because he was upset in class.

“What are we gonna do, buddy, to get back on track?” she asked.

The boy was silent, looking away from Armstrong and worrying a fidget toy in his hand. She kept at it, coaxing him to walk over to her computer and pick out a Mario character to color – something he often does to calm down.

“We got three minutes,” she said. “Bowser? Yoshi?”

Eventually, he spoke up: he wanted Sonic the Hedgehog. Within a few minutes, he was talking again, asking what color he should make the character’s hair.

Armstrong is in her fifth year at Chavez, the first school where she’s worked.

“I feel like it’s a really tight community. I never want to leave,” she said.

Chavez Elementary counselor Crystal Armstrong helps a student with an assignment about the parts of the brain. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Before becoming a school counselor, Armstrong worked in a women’s prison. She transitioned to schools after some bad experiences with her son’s treatment in another district.

She said he struggled with behavior and sometimes felt his teachers didn’t like him. He had an individual education plan which included regular meetings with school staff to talk about how he was doing.

“I remember one time leaving a meeting crying,” she said.

Her goal is to make sure no student or parent at Chavez ever feels that way.

“Every kid at school should feel like their teachers love them, and I wanted to have a role in that,” she said.

Melanie Miller, the school’s behavior specialist, nominated Armstrong for a Crystal Apple award after interning with her last year.

“She’s just like a natural, she loves what she does and she makes it look so easy and fluid,” Miller said. “She knows everybody’s name, pretty much the whole school.”

Armstrong also teaches in classrooms, helping students understand their emotions and how to respond to them.

When she entered a first grade room for a lesson on the brain, some students ran up to hug her. She led students in a deep breathing exercise, using a singing bowl to guide them.

Then, she walked students through the main parts of the brain, comparing each to an animal to help students remember. The amygdala, which processes emotions, can be helpful but sometimes overreacts to a situation, she explained.

“Our amygdala is like a guard dog protecting us, but it doesn’t always make the best choices,” she said.

She asked the room to help her think of ways to get that guard dog to calm down if it’s overreacting. Many suggested deep breaths.

Armstrong’s office includes a gecko, Iggy, which she uses to encourage students who struggle with behavior. Those who stay on track and follow their plans all week get the reward of feeding him live crickets, a highly coveted task.

She underestimated how many crickets a gecko needs to eat.

“I didn’t realize I’d be at the store buying crickets every other day,” she said, laughing.

Students at Chavez Elementary who accomplish behavior goals can feed Iggy, a gecko who lives in the counseling office. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

With only a few crying students stopping by her room, Armstrong said her morning had been quiet. Later in the day, she planned to visit a local rest stop where a student was living in the family’s car. The mother didn’t have a working phone, Armstrong said, so she was trying to connect with her in person to make sure her child was able to get to school and had clean clothes.

“They left all their clothes at the last place they were living,” she said.

Her demeanor and care is praised by parents who said she not only makes sure their kids have what they need at school, but offers advice to help parents respond to difficult behavior at home.

In a letter supporting Armstrong’s nomination, parent Sandy Reno wrote Armstrong set up a “friendship group” to help her son practice social interactions with his friends.

When another student’s parents said they couldn’t leave work to pick their child up from school on Fridays, Armstrong connected Reno with those parents to make sure the student had a ride home.

 “When a child is struggling, she remains calm, kind and consistent. Each morning she stands outside her office greeting students with a smile and a friendly hello,” Reno wrote.

After helping the boy get started coloring Sonic, Armstrong met with parent Mary Lou Salgado, who stopped by Chavez on her way to work to talk about her son.

Salgado said the boy had been struggling with behavior in class but was doing better with Armstrong’s help.

“He’s always wiggly and can’t focus,” she said. “She’s awesome, she connects when something’s going on with my son. She gives me a lot of great advice.”

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.