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February 22, 2013
Executive director Judith Sandalow testified before DC Council's Committee on Education at an oversight hearing for the District of Columbia Public Schools. Read a summary below or review the full testimony as submitted to the committee.
Most of Children's Law Center's young clients are DCPS students, and many of them have special education needs. In the past year DCPS has shown some progress in this area, including an increase in the Early Stages identification rate for children between ages 3 and 5 with disabilities. Some programs for young children have been expanded, and other innovative programs developed at specific schools. But there is much room for improvement, particular in building capacity to serve all the students who need special education services. Sandalow's testimony focused on special education, transparency, family engagement, and behavioral supports. She noted that these issues are interrelated and together contribute to students' success.
Mayor Vincent Gray has made a push to bring many special education students back to DCPS from nonpublic placements, but "in our experience the local DC public schools are still far from equipped to meet the needs of all children," Sandalow testified. "This lack of sufficient capacity is poised to become even more acute as DC continues to focus on returning children from nonpublic placements and at the same time closes two current full-time special education programs." Children's Law Center has not seen any evidence of a comprehensive plan to identify and fill the gaps in services, and instead programs have been closed without appropriately planning for how the students from those programs will continue to receive the supports they need.
Sharing information is particularly important when programs close and change frequently, but DCPS continues to lag behind its sister agencies in transparency. Children's Law Center generally has to submit Freedom of Information Act requests to DCPS in order to receive copies of basic policies, and there is little to no opportunity for the public to comment or contribute during the development of these policies.
Greater family engagement, especially several specific recommendations outlined in Sandalow's testimony, will improve DCPS's ability to partner with parents and other family members as they support their DCPS students. Notifying both students and parents about progress toward graduation would help improve DCPS's graduation rates, clarifying the observation policy would allow parents and other adults in a child's life to invest more completely in the student's success, and ensuring enrollment staff have complete and accurate information will help caregivers get off on the right foot with schools from the beginning.
"For children to make it to graduation and to succeed as adults, schools must go much more than focus on academics," Sandalow testified. Ensuring schools are able to meet children's complex behavioral needs is important, because if children's aren't mentally and emotionally healthy, they aren't able to focus and learn.
Steptoe & Johnson has had a very close relationship with the Children's Law Center since its formation. The cases CLC refers are truly compelling, and the many attorneys who have worked on them over the years have been deeply touched by the experience. It is also a pleasure to work with the CLC staff, all of whom are extremely knowledgeable, and always ready to mentor pro bono attorneys.
Public Service Counsel, Steptoe & Johnson LLP