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.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.