For Students With Special Needs, a Vow Of Assistance

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

District officials, under mounting pressure from a federal judge to overhaul special education services in public schools, promised significant improvements over the next year, including the return of some children now in private schools because the city could not meet their needs.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, joined by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and other top officials on the steps of a Northwest D.C. middle school yesterday, said that two pilot programs underway this academic year will begin to make the school system a more welcoming place for some of the 11,000 children with learning disabilities or behavioral challenges. Rhee also expressed confidence that starting next year the District will be able to begin bringing back to the public schools some of the 2,300 special education students placed in private schools -- at an annual cost of more than $200 million.

"Each and every child should have the opportunity to succeed," Fenty said.

At a hearing last month, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman admonished the District for its failure to meet the terms of a 2006 consent decree settling Blackman v. District of Columbia, a class-action suit brought by parents protesting delays in providing special-ed services. A report by a court-appointed monitor said efforts by D.C. schools and the Office of the State Superintendent of Schools were disorganized and lack clear lines of accountability.

On Monday, Friedman ordered Rhee and State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist back to court Oct. 20 to answer five pages of questions about how they are prepared to comply with the consent decree.

"The consent decree is both a binding court order and a contract," Friedman said in Monday's order. "The fact that District of Columbia school officials have many other pressing responsibilities does not justify the lack of progress."

Rhee said that two pilot programs, one underway at eight elementary schools and the other at eight middle schools, will better prepare D.C. schools to accommodate special-needs children. In the elementary school program, the Schoolwide Applications Model, special education students are placed in general-education classrooms but given individualized instruction by specially trained staff. In the middle school program, the Full Service Schools model, special education students receive individual instruction as part of a broader program of supports involving social workers and psychologists.

The programs will receive broader application beginning next fall, and will help the District "stem the tide" of special-needs children being placed in private schools, Rhee said, adding that she has specific goals in mind for the number of students who could be returned to the city next year.

Rhee and Fenty also introduced the District's new deputy chancellor for special education, Richard Nyankori, who promised a more customer-friendly special-ed operation.

"We want to be more friendly. We want to be more accountable. We want to be more data driven," said Nyankori, a top aide to Rhee who had been working on special education issues. He replaces Phyllis Harris, who went on leave last month.

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