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Meet the only public school ombudsperson in Minnesota: St. Paul’s Dana Abrams

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
As St. Paul Public Schools’ sole ombudsperson, Dana Abrams is the neutral third party designated to listen to and investigate complaints involving the district.

Dana Abrams spends her workdays arranging and mediating conversations between upset parents, community members and educators in the St. Paul Public Schools district. As the district’s sole ombudsperson — a title more commonly associate with professional mediators working in corporate or government settings — she is the neutral third party designated to listen to and investigate complaints involving the district. That list spans everything from bus routes to disciplinary actions taken against a student.

In a district that has experienced a great deal of community unrest over things like leadership turnover and school safety incidents in the past few years, Abrams knows how to handle emotionally charged inquiries and how to get answers fast. It may not always be the answer a parent is hoping for, she says, but she’s upfront about that possibility with everyone who comes to her with a complaint. There are, however, two things she does ensure at the start of each interaction.

“I’m always going to give it to you honestly. And I’m always going to give it to you respectfully,” she said, noting most people — even those who don’t get the answer they wanted — end up satisfied with her services because she holds true to these communication standards. “I try my best to treat folks the same way I’d want someone to treat me. I know that sounds so cliché, but it’s true. By the time folks get to me, they don’t feel like they’ve been heard, or they’ve been passed along. So I do a lot of listening.”

In a district serving more than 38,000 students, Abrams vetted complaints from more than 500 families last school year. When she started in this role nine years ago, she was only responding to roughly 300 complaints a year — and that was with the help of two designated support staff, she said. Since those positions were eliminated during budget cuts, she’s been taking on the growing caseload on her own. And when she finds herself in need of a bit of professional advice or solidarity, she has to look outside of Minnesota to connect with a peer. That’s because she’s the only ombudsperson currently employed by a public school district in the state.  

A unique and changing role

Across the nation, Abrams’ peers also tend to work in large, urban public school districts. She estimates there are only about 25 to 30 of them, in total. Many bear the title “ombudsman” — a word the St. Paul district swapped out for a more gender-neutral variation.

She gets to spend time face to face with many of them once a year, at an event hosted by the United States Ombudsman Association, which has an education chapter. Often, she says, the types of complaints she’s fielding mirror what her peers are working on in places like Seattle, Portland, Boston and Austin, Texas.

Nine of these folks, including Abrams, were interviewed for a 2016 report titled “Best Practices for District Ombudsmen,” published by the Hanover Research, a market research firm. The report lays out the duties of the position, along with best practices and tips for districts looking to establish a new district ombudsman office.

In Minnesota, Abrams says she’s talked with administration in the Anoka-Hennepin district, the largest district in the state. But nothing has taken hold yet. She used to have a counterpart in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, whom she’d grab lunch with at least once a month to talk through some of her more challenging cases, she added. But that position was cut, then reinstated, then cut again in recent years.

She’s seen a fair amount of change in her own role, in the St. Paul district, over the years. The district established an ombudsperson position after a board member latched on to the idea at an out-of-state workshop roughly 15 years ago. When she took over for her predecessor — the only other person to hold the position— she reported directly to the superintendent. Later on, she was housed in the family engagement office. Currently, she’s a one-woman office, receiving some assistance from a communications team employee who helps organize inquiries that are submitted online, via the link provided on her webpage.

Prior to mediating complaints that are submitted by email, phone and in person, Abrams had been working for the district in a number of different roles. She came in with a degree in business administration and later acquired her teaching license. She started out, 26 years ago, working in the student placement center, where she did a lot of problem solving with her predecessor. She’s also worked with the district’s program for homeless youth and with teen mothers who were working toward graduation.

On a personal note, her ties to the district run even deeper. Both she and her children are products of the St. Paul district. It’s something that helps her connect with families, she says. But positioning herself as a neutral party while having a foot in both worlds can be challenging.

“It’s hard a lot of times. I have parents who will say, ‘Oh you’ve got that badge on, you’re just gonna take their side.’ Or I’ll have staff folks — I had one teacher tell me one time, ‘What are you on a witch hunt for staff?’ ” she said. “‘Well, no. I’m not. I’m in the business of doing what’s best for kids, helping families understand the system. Also, helping support the staff in our schools. I think once folks work with me, they see that.”

‘Do what’s in the best interest of your child’

Abrams says her workday usually starts off at a school, sitting in a meeting with some combination of parents, students, teachers and administrators who are having trouble resolving an issue on their own. For instance, she may be contacted by parents who are upset over their child’s suspension and confused by the readmission process. The education system is filled with jargon, policies and statutes that are unaccessible to parents, further fueling their sense of frustration.

“It’s not unusual for me to say, ‘Stop. Can you explain this to the parent in layman’s terms?’ ” Abrams said, noting many parents, while upset, won’t ask for clarification on their own, for fear of sounding stupid. That’s where she steps in and slows down the conversation, to ensure everyone’s on the same page. Otherwise, she says, the issue doesn’t get resolved.

When she’s looking to prioritize her own to-do list, Abrams says safety concerns always come first, then any situations where a student isn’t currently in school. Aware of the fact that any issue can feel urgent to a parent, she aims to get back to people right away to let them know she’s heard them and will be following up soon.

Sometimes her next step is simply asking if they’ve expressed their concern to the teacher, or the principal. She might also direct them to the student handbook, so they can equip themselves with the information they need to advocate for their child on their own.

Then she might pick up the phone and call the principal herself, to say, “Hey, do you know Mr. Smith is upset about what happened on the playground?” It’s not about ratting out a teacher, she says. But, rather, it’s about giving the principal an opportunity to step in and help mediate a situation before things escalate. Likewise, she says it’s common to get calls from administrators asking her to help convey a message to a family that’s not being receptive of it, for whatever reason.

In situations where an attempt to iron out a broken line of communication doesn’t pan out, she’s not afraid to go to bat for a parent who doesn’t feel that they’re being heard. Last year, for instance, when school leadership weren’t being responsive to a parent’s concerns that she had passed along, she said she got the assistant superintendent involved. She aims to be efficient and effective. But she doesn’t presume to have all of the answers — or the power.

“What folks don’t understand is I don’t have any power,” she said. “I cannot make a decision about anything. It all happens with the schools and the assistant superintendents. But what I have is the relationships with folks and the fact that I have done my homework. So if it’s not feeling right and it’s not passing that smell test, then I’m taking it to whoever I need to take it to. Most people respect that.”

There are a couple of areas Abrams doesn’t get involved in: labor relations and any open litigation. She hopes to help families resolve their issues before things rise to the level of the general counsel, she said. But her last word of advice to any parent is always: “Do what’s in the best interest of your child.”

Empowering, not advocating

Her caseload tends to follow a predictable pattern, she says. At the start of the school year, she’s inundated with complaints about school placement. She gets another wave of calls and emails after the first round of conferences, and again when the winter strikes and parents are seeking closer bus stops. While she can’t change the busing routes, she can hear people out and walk them through their options.

Discipline complaints also correlate with the school calendar, she says. There’s always an uptick in behavior incidents before a break, especially among homeless students. “Even for kids who aren’t highly mobile, you just see a rise in behaviors because home life may not be that stable,” she said.

Mindful of this, she prides herself on being a spokesperson for folks who often aren’t heard or who feel lost in the bureaucracy of a large district. While she aims to empower parents to better advocate for their children, however, she doesn’t view herself as a parent advocate.

“I’m really not an advocate because I don’t take sides,” she said. “I’m about: What’s our process? What’s our policy? But I also have brought things to administration saying, ‘We might want to relook at this ‘cause this is the effects it’s having on our families.’”

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