Counselors spearhead diversity effort on campus

The cover of the Viper Campus Alliances December newsletter talking about Human Rights Month.

Submitted

The cover of the Viper Campus Alliance’s December newsletter talking about Human Rights Month.

By Katie McClellan, Vandegrift High School

She never thought her high school counselor would tell her so directly the only way she would get into NYU, her dream school, was because of the affirmative action act. A memory that has stuck with her to this day and one of the many reasons she, along with a fellow counselor created the VCA.

It was malpractices like this one that led Vandegrift counselors Maureen Wheeler and Brittany Hernandez to start and co-chair the Viper Campus Alliance. The VCA was founded with the goal to create a community focused on diversity and making every student and faculty member feel welcome.

“We are trying to foster and keep growing this community where everyone is celebrated, where it doesn’t matter if you’re the state champion in athletics or in the top 10%,” Hernandez said. “Everyone has a place here, everyone is welcomed, everyone’s celebrated.”

The organization is set on focusing on the professional development of Vandegrift’s staff to develop their knowledge of being anti-discriminatory, anti-racist, and being culturally inclusive. They are providing resources for teachers each month in a newsletter, such as books that talk about classroom guidance and leadership and cultural sensitivity, podcasts, movies, Ted Talks and more.They also have a community one pager that principals across the district send out in their weekly newsletters talking about the guiding theme and how parents can keep those conversations going at home.

“I have a first grader at an elementary school in LISD and just watching what they do at their school, it really inspired me and so I said, ‘why can’t we also basically have that at the high school level?’” Wheeler said. “Why does celebration have to stop?” 

Wheeler attributes the idea to create the VCA to seeing her daughter’s elementary school experience and her work on the district diversity and inclusion taskforce, that she and Herndandez are a part of. The district taskforces’ goal was to create something focused on diversity at that higher level and get its members to bring it to their schools and create something themselves.

“I think that was really what led us to be invested in starting the initiative here at the local campus,” Wheeler said. “So we put it out to all staff and we invited anyone to apply for a seat at the committee table.”

The two counselors along with 10 other faculty members make up the VCA, including AP Brittany Skillern, SRO Kim Richards, and one of the school’s social workers.

“We are growing so these microaggressions that we do sometimes see happen will start to dissipate and we are that model program for the district,” Hernandez said. “It has really caught fire, a lot of other schools are trying to start their own alliance programs on their campuses as well. That’s all we wanted, was for Vandegrift to be a spark to show that this can happen, we can all have this happy, welcoming environment.”

The VCA encourages clubs to join in on helping them spread the information in their guiding themes throughout the school in any fashion or form because they want students involved in their endeavors. 

“We also partner with student organizations, Hernandez said. “C Squared has been great, they did something for us last semester in December for Human Rights Day. They will also be partnering with us again in February for Black History Month.”

However, it wasn’t just the district taskforce that inspired the pair to create the VCA. In fact that passion comes from their own high school days and their experiences with racism in their own schools.

“Some of the experiences and stories that I hear some of our Vandegrift kids go through I experience as well; a lot of the microaggressions that unfortunately are still happening right now,” Hernandez said. “People didn’t feel comfortable with me sleeping over at their house, or they said I had a ‘white girl’ name or I played ‘white girl’ sports and not the ‘black girl’ sports and so all of these different things kids say and teachers hear, but they don’t know how to address it or how to make that environment where that’s not necessary.”

Hernandez said that because of her experience with such derogatory remarks she decided to be a teacher so she could foster an inclusive environment in her own classroom where labels don’t exist and friendship can be universal. She switched to school counseling when she realized that the atmosphere she created in her classroom wasn’t happening in every classroom.

“When a kid can only feel safe in one classroom, instead of all of their classrooms, that’s a problem,” Hernandez said. “The majority of your day is spent at school and you should be able to feel safe no matter what class period it is. I was really motivated to say ‘how can I get other teachers to create this?”

After Wheeler’s experience with her high school counselor attempting to derail her dreams, she was determined not to take no for an answer and reached out to another counselor who had been her teacher. He volunteered to write her letter of recommendation instead and send off her application for her.

“That was a really unsettling experience, but I did get into NYU, attended there, and was on the dean’s honor list when I graduated,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler became a school counselor herself because, after that experience, she wanted to be a voice for students who looked like her.

“I never want another student to ever experience a no and have someone be a roadblock in their pursuit of their goals,” Wheeler said. “I became a school counselor so that I could say to my students yes, you can do whatever you want to achieve, you can be the best version of yourself, you can apply to schools and you can dream big.”

This story was originally published on Vandegrift Voice on February 15, 2021.