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February 8, 2012
Judith Sandalow, executive director of Children's Law Center, testified before the DC Council at an oversight hearing focused on education agencies: the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), public charter schools, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and the Deputy Mayor of Education. Sandalow's testimony focused on observations and concerns regarding DCPS and OSSE. Read a summary below, or review Sandalow's full testimony (PDF) as submitted to the Council.
The majority of children CLC represents attend DCPS and many require special education services. There has been marked improvement in the past year, particularly at the elementary school level; in her testimony, Sandalow praised Cleveland Elementary School. However, the capacity of DCPS schools to meet the needs of special education students is still lacking overall. One theme at the hearing was the desire to bring back DC students who are enrolled in school in other jurisdictions - mainly because the special education programs there are better able to meet their needs. Sandalow said that the goal was admirable, but "it doesn't happen magically, first you have to build programmatic capacity within the DC schools."
Sandalow also called for greater transparency and understanding about what programs and services are available at which schools so that advocates like CLC attorneys and parents themselves can find the best school for a child with special needs. Her testimony included the story of a CLC client whose neurological condition required her to use a wheelchair, but her old school was not wheelchair accessible. DCPS proposed three possible placements, but CLC discovered that only one of the suggested schools was wheelchair accessible.
Sandalow also discussed DCPS Early Stages, which seeks to identify and evaluate special needs of children ages 3 to 5. Early Stages does well, but Sandalow testified it may be "to some extent a victim of its own success," unable to keep pace with the need to fully evaluate these children and provide services to them.
Sandalow called OSSE a "model agency" in terms of openness to community feedback and its policymaking process. As an agency, OSSE's job is to oversee local education agencies (LEAs; i.e., local schools, including charter schools). However, some LEAs do not seem to understand that they are subject to OSSE's regulations and others are slow to adopt recommendations. This lack of uniformity is especially noticable in school discipline policies, as was the case for a 4-year-old boy in prekindergarten at a DC charter school. The boy's special needs led to behavior problems which led to multiple suspensions and the threat of expulsion from school. "We appreciate that part of the benefit of charter schools is diversity and flexibility," Sandalow's written testimony reads. "However, there should be minimum standards that all schools follow, and all schools must follow local and federal law."
Sandalow also noted that OSSE has taken significant steps to improve DC's early intervention program for children age 3 and younger. OSSE is considering modifying the criteria for services; CLC looks forward to an anticipated expansion of eligibility criteria and the opportunity to serve more children.
Download and read Sandalow's full testimony (PDF) as submitted to the Council.
"...you’ve got a great group of folks working at the CLC! They have really enriched the advocacy community ... and made a great difference for our children."
-Patricia Mullahy Fugere,
Esq. Executive Director,
Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless