When D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) joined the old D.C. Board of Education in 2001, he noticed that Janney Elementary always seemed to generate the fewest due-process complaints — actions brought by parents of special-education students who charged that the school system wasn’t meeting the needs of their children.
Wells said he eventually learned that this was the work of Anne Gay, who had recently finished 10 years as Janney’s principal. She established a successful program to mainstream disabled students before her appointment as DCPS assistant superintendent for special education.
“Her parents trusted the system,” said Wells. It was among her many gifts as an educator.
Family and friends said Gay, who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in March at age 63, inspired that kind of trust in those she worked with as a teacher, principal, DCPS official and founder of the District of Columbia Association for Special Education (DCASE) a nonprofit advocacy group for students with learning differences.
They gathered at sunset in the playground at St.Coletta PCS on Sept. 20 to remember the woman they called “Robbie.” They recalled her as a wise, determined and subversively funny educator who helped many navigate an often bewildering public school bureaucracy.
Sharon Raimo, St. Coletta’s chief executive, said Gay’s work as the school’s president (after leaving DCPS in 2004) was instrumental in completing its transition from a private special-education school in Alexandria to a public charter school in the District. Negotiations with the city meandered for months, prolonged by the usual serial changes in top management. After agreement was finally reached in 2006, Raimo said Gay sent her a photograph of a large snowball rolling down a hill. The caption said that when ”a few harmless flakes” come together, anything can be accomplished.
“We will remember an indomitable human being,” Raimo said.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she met Gay in 1997 as Teach for America’s D.C. executive director. Henderson was having trouble getting her recruits in the door at DCPS. Gay helped ease the way.
“If every single principal I have in DCPS could be an Anne Gay, we would be in a markedly different place,” Henderson said.
Only a small handful knew about her final illness. Her husband, Donovan Gay, said that before the end, she asked him to promise that he would continue to work for special-education students in the District. “She was a brave, brave woman,” he said.
As the shadows lengthened, the group raised glasses in a toast. Donovan Gay and Henderson unveiled a small plaque that will hang in the playground, among the children she championed.