Saturday, May 29, 2010

DC special ed chief apologizes to parents for mishandling of "reintegration plan"

From The Washington Post:

The District's top special education official apologized to a roomful of anxious parents May 26 for mishandling an attempt to remove their children from private schools where they had been placed at public expense because the city was unable to meet their needs.

Richard Nyankori, deputy chancellor for special education, acknowledged serious problems with the initiative known as the "reintegration plan," which he undertook because he says the city now has the capacity to serve more students with disabilities in public and public charter schools or through some other form of support.

But many parents were angered and alarmed by what they described as the ad hoc, uncommunicative execution of the plan, saying they were informed without any previous consultation that their children would be moved at the end of the current school year. They said placement specialists hired by the District had notified them of the impending moves, in some cases just weeks after their individual education plans -- the documents specifying the special support their children would receive -- were reviewed.

"I get that, and I apologize for it," Nyankori told about 200 parents and lawyers who filled the cafeteria at Randle Highlands Elementary School in Southeast. But he added that the District would continue to pursue the goal of returning students in private placements to public schools when appropriate.

"The reintegration idea is one we're going to hold on to," he said. "The way it's being executed is not."

The District will spend a projected $283 million this year on tuition and transportation for nearly 2,700 disabled students in private schools -- in the Washington region and in residential facilities as far away as Georgia and Colorado. The proportion of the city's special education population in non-public placements (more than 25 percent) is far above the national average, officials say, and the amount of time that disabled children in the District spend with non-disabled peers ranks close to the lowest among the states.

The use of private schools is in part a legacy of failures in the District's special education program, which has been under federal court supervision, for many years. Parents pursued private schools for their children under federal law because the District could not serve them.

Nyankori acknowledged the system's "state of chronic failure" but said the public school system's capacity to serve some special education students has improved. Nyankori and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee frame the reintegration effort as a civil rights issue, asserting that the District has for too long ignored federal mandates that children with disabilities have their educational needs met in the "least restrictive environment."

"We have the most segregated school system in the nation," Nyankori said, adding that the District was not serving disabled children properly by keeping them indefinitely in settings where they receive the most intensive help. Such students need to be "stepped down appropriately," he said.

The District has pursued a similar approach at one of its publicly funded special education facilities, the Jackie Robinson Center. The school's 57 students in first through sixth grades, most of whom have emotional and behavioral issues, will be moved to regular public schools this fall. Nyankori said some students will never be candidates for inclusion in general education schools. That includes "medically fragile" students with disorders such as spina bifida, the seriously mentally ill, and children with a history of violence or as sexual predators.

But Nyankori said there are children with mild and moderate learning disabilities who could be successful in public schools. About half of the District's private special education population is 17 or older, Nyankori said, adding that at 18, those who have had rights legally transferred to them could make their own choices about where to go to school.

He said children are not being well served by some private schools.

"I can't overemphasize that some students enrolled in private schools are not getting what they deserve," he said.

Although Nyankori cites equity and civil rights concerns, there are also financial issues underlying the reintegration attempt. Rhee has identified savings in special education programs as a way to help fund the new performance pay program that is part of the proposed contract with the Washington Teachers' Union. The first three years of the program will be funded with donations from private foundations. But the District will need about $10 million in public money to carry the bonus system from 2013 to 2015, according to an outside analysis of the contract commissioned by Rhee.

Under the reintegration plan, Nyankori directed placement specialists, many provided by contractor First Home Care, to review the cases of all District-supported private school students to see who might be candidates for reintegration. An initial list of more than 200 was developed.

But parents, with children enrolled at private schools such as Kingsbury, Ivymount and Katherine Thomas, told Nyankori on Wednesday that some of the placement staff came to IEP meetings with little or no knowledge of their children's cases. Others said that students older than 18 were being unfairly pressured to withdraw from private settings. The mother of a girl at Kingsbury, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that her child's chances of getting the support she needed would be hurt, said she received a series of phone calls at odd hours of the evening from placement personnel telling her how well her daughter was doing.

Families and advocates said they fear that the budget pressures are creating a rush to action that overlooks the needs of individual students. They said they are not convinced that the District has expanded its capacity to serve special needs students and planned to file "stay put" actions, invoking their legal right to remain in private placement until the case is reviewed by a hearing officer.

"It is not enough to grow up next to your non-disabled peers if you never learn to read. That's not civil rights," said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center, which provides legal representation to families dealing with the special education system.

Before the meeting was over, Nyankori announced that any family that had had an IEP reviewed in March, April or so far this month -- and had been led to believe that a child would remain in private schoo1 -- could disregard any notice of reassignment received.

"We're going to revamp the whole thing," he said.

Nyankori's announcement was welcome news to Wendell Belew, whose son Matthew is an eighth-grader grade at Katherine Thomas School in Rockville. He said Matthew's IEP had been approved last month and called for his continued enrollment at the school, at a cost to the District of about $32,000 a year.

But Belew said he was notified last week that his son, who has what Belew called "severe speech issues," was one of 22 Katherine Thomas students who had been identified for transition to D.C. public schools.

"It's being couched as a civil rights issue, that this is the last vestige of segregation," Belew said. "My reaction is that the great thing about Katherine Thomas is that it's an environment where Matthew feels most typical. He feels really included."