Just weeks before school started, Jennifer White received a letter from the principal at her son’s middle school in the District. With a pattern of late arrivals in the spring, the letter said, her son was not invited to return.
White was stunned. When her initial calls to the principal were not returned, she approached the city’s new education ombudsman, who helped her set up a meeting with the principal and negotiate a way for her son to return to classes.
The Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education, which was revived this year after a four-year hiatus, fielded 150 complaints or concerns in its first six months. The office’s first report, scheduled for release Wednesday, offers a snapshot of the types of matters that D.C. parents were trying to resolve: credits lost during school transfers, poor services for students with disabilities, long-term suspensions, fears about bullying.
The ombudsman’s office is designed to be a neutral third party that can address concerns so that they do not fester or escalate into court cases, but the present occupant also hopes to elevate the role that parents play in a world of educators and administrators filled with rules and acronyms.
“We want to develop a culture where schools are learning to be more responsive to parents and to see them more as equal partners,” said Joyanna Smith, a lawyer and former charter school official who was appointed ombudsman early this year. “I think a number of parents have been ignored.”
Washington is one of a handful of U.S. jurisdictions that have independent ombudsmen dedicated to education.
The office was established in 2007, offering parents a place to take disputes because one traditional route — school board members — became less effective when the mayor’s office was given control of the city’s schools. The ombudsman position had been left unfunded and vacant since fiscal 2010.
The D.C. Council also approved funding to create an Office of the Student Advocate, which is being activated. That office is intended to reach out to parents to share information about the school enrollment lottery, special education and other services, and to represent families involved in disputes, including some that the ombudsman mediates. Together, the offices cost $582,000 in the 2015 budget.
Advocates say the complexity of the District’s school choice process and a history of resolving disputes through litigation — particularly in special education — create a demand for such mediation and advocacy services.
“The tremendous response from parents underscores the need,” said Brendan Williams-Keif, spokesman for David A. Catania, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee and an independent mayoral candidate.
When the ombudsman’s office opened Feb. 26, Joyanna Smith, equipped with a phone and a laptop, started her first day emptying a voice-mail inbox that already was filled with complaints and concerns.
The office has grown to include a full-time associate ombudsman and two fellows. Parents typically call or e-mail, but they also can show up in person.
Of the 150 complaints and other queries recorded up to August, more than two-thirds came from parents of D.C. Public Schools students and about a quarter from parents of charter school students, according to the office’s report. Others came from school leaders or advocacy groups seeking help or information.
Complaints came in from every ward, but nearly half came from families living in Wards 7 and 8.
The office responded to concerns about disrespectful school administrators and inadequate school safety. It helped families retrieve credits that students needed to graduate, returned students to schools after they had been removed, and negotiated classroom reassignments for students who were being bullied. In all, 94 percent of cases reached some kind of resolution, according to the office’s data. Sometimes, the resolution involved explaining a school policy to a confused parent; other times, it involved a conference call or in-person meeting with school officials and family members.
The most common complaints — 22 percent — involved special education, followed by school discipline concerns, at 20 percent. Many complaints touched on multiple issues. In all, the office estimated that 59 percent of the complaints were related to students’ disabilities or school discipline problems.
Special education is a particularly difficult world for parents to navigate, and they need a reliable way to get information about the city’s services, said Molly Whalen, a D.C. parent and special-education activist. She said parents approach her with concerns such as: “ ‘My child’s not learning and I don’t know what to do,’ or ‘My child’s having behavioral problems and I don’t’ know what to do,’ or ‘Do you know of a good autism classroom in the city?’ ”
The ombudsman helps parents research laws and wade through acronyms and agencies. Staffers can make calls during the workday, sit on hold, and add some urgency or leverage to a request.
The office, which sits within the State Board of Education, also is responsible for tracking concerns, developing potential solutions for gaps in services and creating policy recommendations.
“Any child that we help on any given day can be a bridge to help every child,” said Holland Rainey, a fellow in the office.
On Tuesday, Rainey and Smith met with Samuel Bowman and his teenage son. Bowman contacted the office recently because he was trying to enroll his son in school after he missed much of the last school year.
Bowman did not know what kind of programs or services to seek out. He said the ombudsman was helping him find a “safe, structured environment.”
“I’m trying to do better for my child,” he said. “It’s helping.”