profiles in encouragement

Behind the office door of a parent coordinator with longevity

Chantal Desdunes, a parent coordinator, in her office at Brooklyn's High School for Youth and Community Development.

For Chantal Desdunes, going to work sometimes means riding the subways with a parent in search of a runaway child. Sometimes it means visiting a child’s family member in the hospital or mediating a mother-daughter argument over the phone. Sometimes it means offering guidance to a student’s crying, jobless father.

As the parent coordinator at the High School for Youth and Community Development at Brooklyn’s Erasmus Campus, Desdunes starts her days early, walking briskly through the halls nudging her “babies” to take off their hats and get to class.

On a recent Wednesday, Desdunes entered her office — “the parent center slash you name it” — grabbed her morning cup of coffee and settled in at the meeting table. Stacks of manila folders, photocopies of fliers, and scribbled family outreach records crowded the tabletop.

“Anything that has to do with parents goes to me,” Desdunes said.

On the docket for the day: Stuffing the folders for mailing, finishing the monthly Gazette parent newsletter, preparing for an evening workshop, solidifying plans for a student outing to a Nets game, securing four student immunization records, updating the honor roll bulletin board, and monitoring the automatic messaging system that she uses to communicate with parents en masse.

In 2003, Desdunes was an assistant director at a community organization, Community Counseling and Mediation Services, when Marie Prendergast, YCD’s founding principal, selected CCMS as her community partner. Through their collaborative planning work, Prendergast became familiar with Desdunes and her values and pulled her on board to be the school’s parent coordinator.

At the time, the position of parent coordinator was in just its second year of existence, after Mayor Bloomberg and former Chancellor Joel Klein created the position in their first round of school reforms. They required each principal to hire a liaison to work with families even as they sought changes to the city’s school administration to reduce parents’ input in governance.

A decade later, parent coordinators continue to be mandatory for elementary and middle schools. But in 2010, the position – which pays around $40,000 – was made optional for high schools. In October, 57 parent coordinators were among more than 700 school support workers who were laid off.

As one of the longest-serving parent coordinators in the city, Desdunes highlights what the role adds at a time when it is threatened. Parents say YCD would be unimaginable without Desdunes’s watchful eye, nurturing guidance, and encouraging words.

When Desdunes caught Betrice McNeill-Kane’s son exiting the school before last period, McNeill-Kane got a call immediately.

“She made him go back. She’s like ‘Where you going? I’m calling your mother right now,’” McNeill-Kane said. “She loves the kids and she treats them as her own. She stays on top of them.”

Critical phone calls aren’t the only ones parents are getting: Desdunes works with teachers to encourage positive calls home too. She also delivers frequent reminders about school events.

“When there’s an upcoming meeting she calls you a thousand times a day to make sure all the parents come,” McNeill-Kane said.

Jacqueline McDonald became the guardian of a YCD student whose mother was murdered during her freshman year. McDonald said that Desdunes shepherded them through that trying time by keeping them anchored to the school community.

“She guided us,” McDonald said. “Talking with the teachers, calling us every day, she guided us through the whole thing.”

Now, the teen in McDonald’s charge is a senior with a steady post on the honor roll, and McDonald credits Desdunes for keeping both of them engaged.

“She’s someone I could go to whenever there’s a problem,” McDonald said. “She’s very helpful in giving me advice and encouragement.”

Desdunes knows how crucial encouragement can be because, like many of the parents at YCD, she has struggled to provide for her children in the past, too. In 1991, during a trip to New York, a coup d’état in Haiti, where Desdunes lived and attended private schools, stranded her and her two children stateside. She enrolled them in a Catholic school and took a job on Wall Street to pay the tuition, abandoning her progress toward a degree in bilingual education in the process. On occasion, when she had to work through the night, she would put her children to sleep under her desk.

Ultimately she had to pull her children from private school and enroll her daughter at P.S. 161 The Crown and her son at M.S. 61, both in Crown Heights. After seeing how heavily the Catholic school had courted parent involvement, Desdunes was shocked by the boundaries that kept parents out of public schools.

“I was appalled by the lack of parental involvement or parental say. This is our school, we pay taxes so we should be able to confer with somebody,” Desdunes said. “Just because you’re in public school doesn’t mean that education should be mediocre.”

She made her way onto the board of M.S. 61’s parent-teacher association and increased her engagement in her Crown Heights community by attending local police precinct community council meetings and becoming active in her building’s tenant association. In 1999, she found the job at CCMS through a cousin.

Prendergast said that one of the most significant tasks Desdunes has taken on has been empowering parents and letting them know that they have the right to make noise and keep the school accountable.

“She goes beyond the job description,” Prendergast said. “Far beyond.”

Now, positioned at the intersection between home and school, Desdunes can both advocate for parents and help school staff push back against more difficult parents to open constructive communication.

It’s the advocacy that consumes her working hours. Many YCD students have immigrated from the Caribbean and many live with people other than their parents. Some of the children are not documented immigrants. Some of the parents don’t have jobs.

Desdunes moonlights at Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, running an employment program. Tapping into her connections there, Desdunes has been able to direct parents and students towards job opportunities, and keeps a hefty file of their resumes and cover letters on her computer.

Meeting everyone’s needs requires a certain scrappiness, Desdunes said. “We will use every tool and invent new tools to meet your needs,” she said. “And the needs are huge. Immense.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.