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

He said children are not being well served by some private schools.

"I can't overemphasize that some students enrolled in private schools are not getting what they deserve," he said.

Although Nyankori cites equity and civil rights concerns, there are also financial issues underlying the reintegration attempt. Rhee has identified savings in special education programs as a way to help fund the new performance pay program that is part of the proposed contract with the Washington Teachers' Union. The first three years of the program will be funded with donations from private foundations. But the District will need about $10 million in public money to carry the bonus system from 2013 to 2015, according to an outside analysis of the contract commissioned by Rhee.

Under the reintegration plan, Nyankori directed placement specialists, many provided by contractor First Home Care, to review the cases of all District-supported private school students to see who might be candidates for reintegration. An initial list of more than 200 was developed.

The complaints

But parents, with children enrolled at private schools such as Kingsbury, Ivymount and Katherine Thomas, told Nyankori on Wednesday that some of the placement staff came to IEP meetings with little or no knowledge of their children's cases. Others said that students older than 18 were being unfairly pressured to withdraw from private settings. The mother of a girl at Kingsbury, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that her child's chances of getting the support she needed would be hurt, said she received a series of phone calls at odd hours of the evening from placement personnel telling her how well her daughter was doing.

Families and advocates said they fear that the budget pressures are creating a rush to action that overlooks the needs of individual students. They said they are not convinced that the District has expanded its capacity to serve special needs students and planned to file "stay put" actions, invoking their legal right to remain in private placement until the case is reviewed by a hearing officer.

"It is not enough to grow up next to your non-disabled peers if you never learn to read. That's not civil rights," said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center, which provides legal representation to families dealing with the special education system.

Before the meeting was over, Nyankori announced that any family that had had an IEP reviewed in March, April or so far this month -- and had been led to believe that a child would remain in private schoo1 -- could disregard any notice of reassignment received.

"We're going to revamp the whole thing," he said.

Nyankori's announcement was welcome news to Wendell Belew, whose son Matthew is an eighth-grader grade at Katherine Thomas School in Rockville. He said Matthew's IEP had been approved last month and called for his continued enrollment at the school, at a cost to the District of about $32,000 a year.

But Belew said he was notified last week that his son, who has what Belew called "severe speech issues," was one of 22 Katherine Thomas students who had been identified for transition to D.C. public schools.

"It's being couched as a civil rights issue, that this is the last vestige of segregation," Belew said. "My reaction is that the great thing about Katherine Thomas is that it's an environment where Matthew feels most typical. He feels really included."

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