D.C. parents have a new place to take their questions and complaints about city education: Joyanna Smith, the independent ombudsman charged with helping families navigate the District’s traditional and charter schools.
Smith is a lawyer and former charter school official who will serve as a clearinghouse for parents’ concerns and as a mediator to help resolve problems. She is only the second person to fill the position, which was created by the same law that established mayoral control of the schools but has been left vacant and unfunded since fiscal 2010.
“We’re excited. We think it’s going to empower the parents and the community to have an independent voice for problem-solving,” said Mark Jones, president of the D.C. State Board of Education, which appointed Smith with the input of community members who interviewed finalists for the position.
Parents can call the ombudsman for help with any issue related to schools. Smith — whose appointment is expected to be publicly announced Friday but who began the job about six weeks ago — said she has already fielded calls from parents concerned about bullying and frustrated with special-education services.
“We don’t have power to compel the school to do anything, but we don’t need that power,” said Smith, who said schools have been receptive to working with her to resolve families’ issues. “Really, it’s supposed to be a collaborative experience between the students and parents and schools.”
Besides resolving individual complaints, Smith also is tasked with compiling data to identify recurring issues and problems that need deeper examination.
Smith said she saw the ombudsman’s position as a “unique opportunity to combine the various work experiences that I’ve had in the past.”
She worked for the District government for about three years as a labor relations adviser at the Department of Public Works and as a policy analyst at the Department on Disability Services. In 2009, Smith joined the staff of Excel Academy Public Charter School, an all-girls school in Southeast Washington. She rose to director of finance and operations, a position in which she said she often fielded parents’ complaints and questions. Smith left Excel in 2011 and has been working as a consultant and grant writer for clients that include charter schools.
Smith, who lives in Ward 8, is a graduate of Brown University and the law school at George Washington University.
“This represents a welcome return for a parental advocate within the school systems,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), a mayoral candidate. As chairman of the council’s Education Committee, Catania pushed last year to fund the position.
“It’s long overdue,” he said.
In 2007, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) appointed the District’s first ombudsman, Tonya Vidal Kinlow, calling her “the city’s face of customer service for education.” But Kinlow resigned in 2008, and the ombudsman’s office closed the following year.
Since then, parents and activists have consistently called for a new ombudsman, but Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) declined to fund the position, saying that there were more important spending priorities for education.
In 2012, council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) successfully pushed a measure that moved the ombudsman job, which had been housed within the office of the deputy mayor of education, to the Board of Education. In 2013, the council’s Education Committee added funds to the board’s budget that allowed for the hiring of an ombudsman and an assistant. Smith said she hopes to hire that assistant within the next several weeks.
Parents seeking help can call Smith directly at 202-741-0886 or contact her via e-mail at email@example.com or online at sboe.dc.gov.