City to Pull 170 Students From Private School

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

A Springfield private school that is paid by the District of Columbia to provide education to students with special needs is in danger of closing after the District decided this week to pull its students, citing concerns about the quality of instruction.

Accotink Academy, which has worked with District students for more than 15 years, received an e-mail Wednesday from Richard Nyankori, the District's deputy chancellor for special education, who informed the school that 170 students were being pulled in the coming weeks.

Accotink Academy said it had not been told of any concerns before notices were sent to parents Tuesday. They also said the academy's teachers were highly qualified and that the school wasn't going down without a fight.

Most of the academy's students are from the District, and the school, which has been open since 1964, will be forced to close if they are pulled, said Elaine N. McConnell, the academy's founder.

"We've never had a blemish on our name," she said. "We weren't given one word, not one single word."

The District has nearly 9,300 special education students, including those in public charter schools, and about 30 percent of them are enrolled in private schools because the District can't meet their needs. The cost to taxpayers in tuition and transportation is about $200 million a year. Accotink Academy has been receiving about $10 million a year from the D.C. school system, according to District figures.

The e-mail from Nyankori said that Accotink staff members were "indifferent" to the students and that the quality of teaching was "quite low." It also said teachers didn't seem to be following individualized education plans, which guide instruction for special education students.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the school should have known from repeated monitoring visits that it was being evaluated. It was "not a close case," he said.

"If they couldn't see that what was going on was inappropriate," he said, "then they must have been blind."

He said the school wasn't closed over the summer because "there may have been some hope" that it would improve. "They haven't gotten the message," he said.

Several parents said that they had not seen any problems and that they were worried that switching schools a month into the school year would disrupt students far more than any changes that might have been made over the summer.

"I have never had problems with getting any educational need that I wanted for him," said Barbara Jones-Dixon, whose 18-year-old son is in his final year at the school. When her son arrived there eight years ago, Jones-Dixon said, "he was a child that did not trust anyone. . . . He has made tremendous progress."

The students and families will meet with placement teams in the coming weeks to determine where they will be going to school. They will be allowed to go to private schools, according to letters they received from the school system. Nickles said he did not think the change would save the District any money.

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