Another good grade for Michelle Rhee's reforms

Thursday, January 6, 2011; 7:56 PM

A "VASTLY IMPROVED level of performance" in the District's long-troubled handling of its special education students: That's what outside evaluators have found. Their judgment offers further evidence of the success of reforms initiated by former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee - and underscores the importance of continuing that critical work.

A report prepared for U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, presiding over the Blackman-Jones case that found the District in violation of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, chronicles the progress made since 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty assumed responsibility for the schools and made their improvement his priority. In assessing the city's performance in holding hearings and providing services for children with special needs, consultants Amy Totenberg and Clarence J. Sundram judged the public school system to be in a "very different state." They related how there had been no coherent management system, no way to track cases and a large backlog of cases. Citing the concerted efforts of school leaders and the talented staff they recruited, the consultants reported "substantial progress," though they added that significant challenges remain in providing children with needed services sooner.

Similar progress has been reported in other areas of special education (such as transportation and early identification of children in need) that have been subject to court action. Of course, as Ms. Totenberg and Mr. Sundram stress, simply meeting minimum court requirements is not the same as having a robust program that addresses children's needs. In that, they get no argument from Richard Nyankori, the District's well-regarded deputy chancellor for special education, who likens meeting court obligations to "getting the train back on the tracks" and really fixing education to getting the trains running.

It used to be that District students were 8 or 9 years old or even older before they were identified as needing special services, making improvement all the more difficult. Now the Early Stages Center screens children ages 3 to 5 for developmental delays and matches them with services to help them succeed as they enter school. Creating better programs in schools closer to students' homes is the next challenge, along with an overall improvement in instruction. Limited revenue could pose a challenge, and it's worrisome that school and city fiscal officials seem to be at odds over how much money is being spent. Court consultants also worry about possible setbacks caused by the change in school leadership.

The transition to Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson has been seamless, but she remains interim, and uncertainty, if persistent, can be damaging. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), as he ponders his next step, might consider this from the consultants: "Based on our close work with District staff for the past three years, the Evaluation Team is confident that the District currently has the commitment, capacity and quality central staff required to take this reform effort to the next level of challenge."

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