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.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.