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D.C. Special-Ed Official's Trying Tenure

Reform Chief To Leave With Much Undone

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page B03

Raymond Bryant was brought in as the District's chief of special education reform in August 2002 to improve a costly and inefficient program that regularly siphoned money from other parts of the school budget.

Bryant will quit this week to become school superintendent in Elmira, N.Y. As he prepares to depart, he acknowledges that the department he leaves behind is, by many measures, as troubled as the one he inherited.

"I have real mixed feelings. There is a lot of unfinished work," says Raymond Bryant, chief of special education reform. Among his successes was an innovative hearing skills program and the renovation of a Southeast school. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

His tenure has not been without successes. Bryant shepherded the completion of a languishing renovation project at Prospect Learning Center, a school in Southeast Washington for disabled students, and he championed an innovative program at Key Elementary School in Northwest that trains nearly deaf students to develop their limited hearing skills.

His department also launched programs for students with autism and learning disabilities, allowing 1,800 such children to remain in District schools rather than be sent elsewhere.

Bryant conceded, however, that he has fallen short of some key benchmarks. Special education students make up 20 percent of the school system's enrollment of 61,710 students -- twice the national average for school districts. About one-third of the students are educated in other school districts or in private facilities, resulting in large tuition and transportation expenses for the District. And the department continues to overspend its annual budgets, exceeding its allotted funding by $30 million or more in each of the past few years.

"I have real mixed feelings. There is a lot of unfinished work," Bryant said.

Federal law requires public schools to provide special-needs students with services that give them equal access to a quality education, such as supplying them with tutors and physical or speech therapists. In the District, many of those children have been placed in expensive outside facilities because the school system lacks adequate in-house programs.

Bryant said his efforts to expand in-house programs were slowed by a nationwide shortage of certified special education teachers and lack of money to outfit school buildings with wheelchair ramps and elevators.

Even in cases in which District schools are equipped to meet students' needs, many parents seek to have their children placed in a more attractive setting, Bryant said. "If your buildings have windows glazed over, the air conditioner doesn't work, if the building is not inviting, parents aren't going to want their kids to go to your school," he said.

Hearing officers rule in favor of parents about 80 percent of the time, usually not because of the merits of the outside placement but rather because of such procedural issues as the school system failing to schedule a diagnostic test on time, Bryant said.

For each special education student sent to an outside program, the school system spends an average of about $18,000 a year for transportation and $45,000 a year for tuition.

David Gilmore, who was appointed by a federal judge to oversee special education transportation in a settlement of a class-action suit filed by parents, said Bryant should have been a stronger advocate for the department.

Bryant had no "adequate plan with specific timetables . . . to spell out how reform will be accomplished," Gilmore said. "It would have been his responsibility to develop the plan and shepherd it through the bureaucracy."

But Bryant said the school system as a whole, not just his department, "has to own the overall fix of special education."

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