Chancellor Kaya Henderson pushed back Friday at this week’s federal court ruling that the District has failed to identify and treat adequate numbers of young children with special needs, saying that the District received little credit for substantial progress.

She said that since the opening of the Early Stages diagnostic center in 2009, DCPS has dramatically increased the percentage of the pre-school age population identified as needing special education services from 2 percent to 7.4 percent. That places the District 15th among the states in meeting the “Child Find” requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“I am disappointed that the ruling ignores our remarkable progress over the past two years,” Henderson said in statement.

In his ruling Wednesday on the D.L. vs.. D.C. class action, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth cited the city’s “persistent failure” to live up to its legal obligations, calling it “a failure that works a severe and lasting harm on one of society’s most vulnerable populations — disabled preschool children...” He established a series of performance benchmarks for officials to meet, including an increase in the proportion of young children identified for services to 8.5 percent.

Henderson said the District would have no trouble reaching the target, which has been met by only eight states. She praised DCPS special education chief Dr. Nathaniel Beers, the former founding executive director of Early Stages.

“Families of the District should know that Dr. Beers and the Early Stages team have gone to amazing lengths to remedy this issue. I commend them on their efforts, which have resulted in nearly a four-fold improvement in just two years. As a result of their work, more children are getting the services they need in a timely manner,” she said. Last week, a new Early Stages satellite center opened on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast DC to better serve families in Wards 7 and 8.

But Lamberth’s 45-page opinion, citing trial testimony and documents placed in evidence, said that a major reason for the improvements described by Henderson was the pressure created by the lawsuit, filed by special needs children and their parents in July 2005.

The Early Stages staff itself said that the District is a long way from properly serving the pre-school population, projecting the actual identification rate at about 12 percent. And while Henderson hailed the recent gains, the District acknowledged in court that as recently as last November at least four patients per day contacted Early Stages “to report that a Child Find Coordinator had failed to return their calls regarding providing their children with an evaluation or an eligibility screening.”

Perhaps most embarrassing to the city was that its own expert witness so thoroughly trashed its Child Find efforts that attorneys feared that she might hand the defendants a victory. Maxine Freund, a professor at GWU’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, concluded that the city’s program has been “troubled and largely unsuccessful in meeting their obligations of IDEA.”

She said the program suffered especially from frequent leadership turnover and lengthy vacancies in key positions. In preparing her report, Freund said she was provided “incomplete documents, drafts, unsigned MOUs and identified practices that did not benefit the systems involved in Child Find.”

Ellen Efros, chief attorney for the Equity Section of the D.C. Attorney General’s office, said that an initial draft of Freund’s report “shredded” the District, and would be “extraordinarily difficult to defend.”

She was apparently correct.