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.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.