A “kid whisperer” at Chavez Elementary builds connections on and off the field

Ahead of the 2024 Crystal Apple Awards for outstanding educators on May 22, Salem Reporter is profiling several of the 97 nominees. The awards are presented by the McLaran Leadership Foundation and the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce at the Salem Convention Center. Tickets are sold out.

Herding dozens of fifth grade students through lunch and recess is among the most challenging parts of the day at most elementary schools.

But at Chavez Elementary School, students played volleyball, soccer and shot hoops under a drizzly sky Thursday afternoon in harmony. A brief complaint about turns in a volleyball game surfaced, and Luis Oliva Barrientos, the lead educator supervising recess, stepped in quickly.

“If someone’s not being fair, I’ll just take the ball away,” he said, calm and matter-of-fact. The girls quickly worked out the conflict on their own. 

Colleagues credit Oliva Barrientos with leading activities and setting expectations that help keep students on track, whether it’s lining up quickly and quietly to go to lunch or staying focused in class.

“He builds relationships with kids first — that’s the key,” said Shauna De Vos, the school’s behavior specialist.

Oliva Barrientos has worked at Chavez for four years, and in the district for five. He’s an instructional assistant who spends much of the school day helping in a second grade classroom, but he also serves as Chavez’s crossing guard, supervises recess and lunch, and volunteers coaching a school soccer team after class.

“I wear a lot of hats,” he said, smiling as he encouraged students to line up at the end of recess.

Luis Oliva Barrientos speaks with students during recess at Chavez Elementary School on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Originally from Guatemala, Oliva Barrientos’ parents brought him to the U.S. when he was three. He’s a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program which gives undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children the ability to work and avoid deportation.

It’s something he’s open about with Chavez students and families, many of whom are immigrants.

“You can relate to them,” he said.

He coaches the coed soccer team with his brother and several other school employees and said he tries to include kids who struggle with their behavior in class. His goal on the team is to give them an outlet while holding them accountable, something colleagues and parents say is working.

“I have seen a positive change in my son since being on the team. He has perfect attendance, has more friends and I noticed a boost in self confidence,” one Chavez mother wrote in a letter supporting Oliva Barrientos’ nomination for a Crystal Apple award.

“He has established a culture that sets clearly defined high expectations for all students, not only during soccer time, but also in the classroom and other areas of school,” Principal Monica Takata wrote in her nomination letter. “Under Coach Luis’ leadership, our soccer players learn not only soccer skills, but also skills such as responsibility, sportsmanship, perseverance, teamwork, and kindness, which are essential skills for life.”

Oliva Barrientos graduated from North Salem High School in 2015 and said an influential middle school teacher shaped his desire to be a role model for other kids.

The best part of his job is easily “the kids,” he said. “This is what I do — being a male role model for a lot of students as well that don’t have that.”

He’s now studying to become a teacher, attending classes part time after school at Chemeketa Community College through a school district program which pays tuition for bilingual instructional assistants to become licensed teachers.

Oliva Barrientos is in his third year being the school’s crossing guard, a job he took because it was always vacant.

“Nobody really wanted to stand in the rain and the cold,” he said.

He said it’s not so bad, and he likes being a friendly face for students.

“All hands on deck, whatever I can do to help.”

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

SUPPORT OUR WORK – We depend on subscribers for resources to report on Salem with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

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.