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SPECIAL EDUCATION

Staff No-Shows Decried as Rhee Aide Testifies

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee says she is trying to satisfy court orders.
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee says she is trying to satisfy court orders. (Susan Walsh - AP)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The District's top special education official testified in federal court yesterday that some school personnel ignore scheduled meetings with parents, contributing to the city's failure to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities or behavioral challenges.

Richard Nyankori, acting deputy chancellor for special education, said the backlog of D.C. children awaiting special education services is lengthy in part because school staff don't show up for meetings, leaving cases unresolved and parents in the lurch.

"Sometimes it is willful on the part of some staff not to make it to meetings," Nyankori said under questioning from U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.

Friedman called the hearing to quiz officials about the District's lack of progress in complying with a 2006 consent decree that settled a class action brought by parents of children with learning problems. The District's public and public charter schools have nearly 11,000 special education students. About 20 percent attend private schools, at a cost to taxpayers of about $200 million, because D.C. cannot meet their needs.

Friedman had ordered D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and D.C. State Schools Superintendent Deborah A. Gist to answer questions he included in an order this month.

Rhee was not present because her flight back from California had been canceled, officials said. Testifying in her place was Nyankori, a Rhee deputy who worked for her at the New Teachers Project, the nonprofit group she founded and ran before coming to the District.

Friedman did not press Nyankori on the issue of staff no-shows at meetings, and Nyankori did not elaborate.

In an interview after the hearing, Nyankori said that many special education coordinators, teachers and other service providers take their duties seriously and that sometimes "workload or not understanding what the procedures are" can lead to meetings not occurring.

But Nyankori added, "I think we encounter indifference."

He said that the problem was most prevalent in high schools and that he and Rhee have warned principals that they will be held accountable for staff members who shirk their responsibilities.

"We've handed down the charge," he said.

Candi Peterson, a social worker at Garfield Elementary and a member of the board of trustees of the Washington Teachers' Union, disputed Nyankori's claims.


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