It sparked questions when the District’s two top special-education officials announced their resignations on the same day (May 13). But DCPS Deputy Chancellor Richard Nyankori and Assistant State Superintendent Tameria Lewis said any appearance of concerted action was accidental.
What does link them is the toll taken by years in what are arguably the city’s most punishing education jobs. Both inherited major pieces of a system considered by many parents and advocates as utterly broken. Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she once regarded special education as “the intractable beast of D.C. public schools.”
And while no one believes that the city’s capacity to meet the educational needs of its physically and emotionally disabled children is where it should be, Nyankori and Lewis get generally high marks for leaving a solid foundation that can support future reforms.
“I have enormous respect for Dr. Nyankori and enormous respect for Ms. Lewis. I think both of them are wonderful public servants and I hate to see them go,” U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman said Wednesday afternoon at a quarterly hearing on the Blackman-Jones class-action suit that mandates improvements in the delivery of special education services to D.C. schoolchildren.
A December report by court-appointed evaluators credits the District for “substantial progress” in identifying, tracking and managing special education cases. The evaluators maintained, however, that “lingering, core problems” still plague management of the system, which oversees nearly 11,000 students in public, public charter and private schools.
Publicly, at least, Nyankori and Lewis run at different RPMs. Nyankori, 39, a former Baltimore special ed teacher and administrator, can be outspoken and abrasive. Lewis, 41, who began her District service as an aide to former D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, is cautious and measured. But both brought personal passions to their work. Nyankori has a disabled brother; Lewis says growing up in foster care has left her with a deep affinity for at-risk children.
Child advocates credit Lewis, named in 2007 as the first special ed chief for the fledgling OSSE (Office of the State Superintendent for Education) with establishing a foundational series of policies and regulations that seek to hold charter and private schools more accountable for their treatment of special needs children. Under her watch, the OSSE closed one private school for poor performance (SunRise Academy) and is attempting to shutter another (Rock Creek Academy) She also upgraded training for special education teachers and other service providers.
“I’ve seen more progress on the state level under her leadership than we’ve seen in many years,” said Molly Whalen, chair of the State Advisory Panel on Special Education. Whalen, a mother of special needs children, said Lewis also forged a special connection with parents.
“She truly believes in the parents, she really understood them,” she said But those who know Lewis said she’s grown frustrated with the pace of change in D.C. government, and the struggle to bring coherence to the unwieldy cluster of agencies responsible for special education, including the OSSE, the mayor’s office, DCPS and charter schools that legally function as their own mini-school districts.
“I feel compelled to find another avenue through which to do this important work that gives me more flexibility on how to do it,” said Lewis in characteristically cautious fashion.
Nyankori, 39, who is relocating to Atlanta to be closer to his extended family, was brought to DCPS by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee from the New Teacher Project, her teacher recruitment and training nonrofit. He is credited with paving the way for Early Stages, the diagnostic clinic that flags potential learning problems before they require extensive and costly intervention. He also developed a reputation for his willingness to troubleshoot and untangle bureaucratic snags on behalf of individual children.
Nyankori said he is most proud of what he calls “a basic re-engineering” of the special ed central office operation and progress in the DCPS classrooms, where special needs students are spending more time with their non-disabled peers.
“It is quite miraculous what is going on in many classrooms,” he said. “We need to continue building the culture that says a kid should be served to the greatest extent possible in a neighborhood school or school of choice in D.C.,” he said
But critics say Nyankori stumbled badly last year when he attempted to move too quickly to “reintegrate” special ed students in private schools back into neighborhood schools.
Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, which represents families in their dealings with the special education system, said that while she credits Nyankori for being “the first person in a while to really make the effort,”neighborhood schools are where he has made “the least progress” in his three-year tenure.
Ira Burnim, legal director for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and lead attorney for families who are plaintiffs in the Blackman-Jones case, agreed that Nyankori and Lewis did important work, but that little of it reached the classroom.
“They, or perhaps their bosses [primarily former Mayor Adrian M.Fenty and former D.C. State Superintendents Deborah Gist and Kerri Briggs] were too timid in their strategies and invested too few resources where it mattered most,” he said.
Nyankori has been succeeded by Dr. Nathaniel Beers, former executive director of Early Stages. Amy Maisterra, Lewis’ chief of staff and former top special education official in Philadelphia, will serve as interim assistant superintendent.