D.C. special-ed chief apologizes for mishandling private school removal plan

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

The District's top special education official apologized to a roomful of anxious parents Wednesday night for mishandling an attempt to remove their children from private schools where they had been placed at public expense because the city was unable to meet their needs.

Richard Nyankori, deputy chancellor for special education, acknowledged serious problems with the initiative known as the "reintegration plan," which he undertook because he says the city now has the capacity to serve more students with disabilities in public and public charter schools or through some other form of support.

But many parents were angered and alarmed by what they described as the ad hoc, uncommunicative execution of the plan, saying they were informed without any previous consultation that their children would be moved at the end of the current school year. They said placement specialists hired by the District had notified them of the impending moves, in some cases just weeks after their individual education plans -- the documents specifying the special support their children would receive -- were reviewed.

"I get that, and I apologize for it," Nyankori told about 200 parents and lawyers who filled the cafeteria at Randle Highlands Elementary School in Southeast. But he added that the District would continue to pursue the goal of returning students in private placements to public schools when appropriate.

"The reintegration idea is one we're going to hold on to," he said. "The way it's being executed is not."

The District will spend a projected $283 million this year on tuition and transportation for nearly 2,700 disabled students in private schools -- in the Washington region and in residential facilities as far away as Georgia and Colorado. The proportion of the city's special education population in non-public placements (more than 25 percent) is far above the national average, officials say, and the amount of time that disabled children in the District spend with non-disabled peers ranks close to the lowest among the states.

The use of private schools is in part a legacy of failures in the District's special education program, which has been under federal court supervision, for many years. Parents pursued private schools for their children under federal law because the District could not serve them.

Capacity for help

Nyankori acknowledged the system's "state of chronic failure" but said the public school system's capacity to serve some special education students has improved. Nyankori and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee frame the reintegration effort as a civil rights issue, asserting that the District has for too long ignored federal mandates that children with disabilities have their educational needs met in the "least restrictive environment."

"We have the most segregated school system in the nation," Nyankori said, adding that the District was not serving disabled children properly by keeping them indefinitely in settings where they receive the most intensive help. Such students need to be "stepped down appropriately," he said.

The District has pursued a similar approach at one of its publicly funded special education facilities, the Jackie Robinson Center. The school's 57 students in first through sixth grades, most of whom have emotional and behavioral issues, will be moved to regular public schools this fall. Nyankori said some students will never be candidates for inclusion in general education schools. That includes "medically fragile" students with disorders such as spina bifida, the seriously mentally ill, and children with a history of violence or as sexual predators.

But Nyankori said there are children with mild and moderate learning disabilities who could be successful in public schools. About half of the District's private special education population is 17 or older, Nyankori said, adding that at 18, those who have had rights legally transferred to them could make their own choices about where to go to school.

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