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Report: D.C. special education better, but 'core problems' linger

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; B01

The District has made significant strides in serving special education students, but "lingering core problems" keep the city from meeting all the requirements of a 2006 agreement to improve the troubled system, according to a court-appointed evaluation team.

The District serves about 11,000 public and public charter school students with special needs. Parents denied special education programs for their children by school officials can seek a hearing at which they can appeal the decision.

The evaluators said in their annual report that the District has "vastly improved" its ability to track and manage the cases of children found eligible for special education programs by an independent hearing officer or through an agreement between the District and the family. But the report also finds that the District has declared many cases successfully closed without delivering promised services to the students.

It also says that the city has placed an undue burden on families to implement special education agreements, with tight deadlines for producing documents and rigid regulations governing the District's payment of attorneys representing them.

"Based on our detailed review of the evidence, the Evaluation Team ultimately concludes that despite the substantive progress made, Defendants have not met the base line . . . performance requirement," said the report, prepared for U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman. The team will present the report at a hearing Friday.

The District's deputy chancellor for special education, Richard Nyankori, disagreed with the team's central findings, asserting that it had "cherry-picked" cases from city files to prove some of its points.

"That's their narrative. I disagree with it," Nyankori said.

But the city has filed no formal objections with the court, which has been its past practice with annual evaluation reports.

The evaluators, educational consultants Amy Totenberg and Clarence J. Sundram, also expressed concern that the change in city and school district leadership would jeopardize a fragile progress "not yet embedded at the school level sufficiently to give confidence in its durability."

Nyankori said that he had worked to make changes in the city's special education office "regime-resistant," meaning they will endure despite turnover at the top. "We have a strategy that is very durable," he said.

The District's special education programs have been managed by the court through a 2006 consent decree imposed as part of the settlement of the Blackman-Jones class action lawsuit. The suit was brought by families demanding that hearing officers issue decisions about special education matters in a timely manner and that the District act on the decisions speedily.

The city is poised to exit the "Blackman" portion of the case, which concerns timely decisions by hearing officers. The city has eliminated much of the hearing backlog, and attorneys representing plaintiffs have joined with the District in a motion to terminate that piece of the consent decree.

The District's ability to deliver promised services on time, however, is still at issue. City officials say they have reached the legally required benchmark, which calls for timely implementation of 90 percent of hearing officers' decisions and settlement agreements.

But evaluators Totenberg and Sundram said a sample of about 100 cases they examined showed that the District unilaterally changed practices, ignored protocols or cut corners to paint a favorable statistical picture. For example, the report said, the District cut the time for a parent or an attorney to obtain an independent evaluation of a child's educational status from 120 to 45 days. In one instance, a District case manager got a student's grandparent to sign off on an agreement without involving the family's attorney. In another, a school system official declared that a case was implemented in a timely manner, even though the student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the legal document outlining special education services the student is to receive, had expired three months earlier.

The evaluators placed the District's timely implementation rate at closer to 80 percent.

Nyankori said he did not think the District and the evaluators were far apart in their view of progress that has been made. He said that where there has been a rush to close out cases prematurely, action has already been taken.

"Behind every one of these numbers is a kid and a service," he said. "When I find staff who are more interested in numbers than in serving a kid, we let them go."

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