By: The Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education
What is an Ombudsman?
The word “ombudsman” is derived from a Swedish word meaning “entrusted person” or “grievance representative.” The word has come to denote a trusted agent who looks after the interests of a group.
The Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education is an independent, impartial office that helps parents and students resolve school complaints individually and collectively, transforming problems into solutions that compel systemic progress for all public education in D.C. As established by law, the our mission is to be a “single office” that coordinates “transparency and accountability” by helping D.C. families navigate the education agencies that govern and operate the public schools in D.C.
Learn more about our office with this short video:
Overview of Cases During SY 2019–20
In SY2019–20, we processed the second-highest number of cases since our inception. During distance learning, however, we experienced a decline in call volume for the remainder of the school year.
The data presented in our annual report shows the same trends reported in SY 2018-19. Communication and Engagement, Bullying/Student Safety, and Special Education/Disability remain the top three topics. Approximately 50 percent of the students that our office opened cases for are students with disabilities. The Office received complaints from all eight wards and most of the complaints are from residents of Wards 5, 7, and 8.
The Office undertook several initiatives to support families this school year. The Office partnered with SchoolTalk to facilitate community circles for families with differently-abled children. Families came together and discussed a variety of topics, such as the highs and lows of distance learning, the intersectionality of racism and special education while building a supportive network. We also provided families with resources to build their emotional vocabulary and have difficult conversations with their children.
During this school year, the Office also partnered with the Office of the Attorney General to provide mediation services as an intervention for families of students who were experiencing issues with school attendance. The goals of those mediations were to discuss the barriers preventing the students from attending school regularly, to connect the families with resources to help decrease or remove those barriers, and to develop plans for successful attendance for the next 90 days.
We served 26 families in that capacity. When discussing the factors that prevented the students from successful school attendance, a third of the families revealed their struggles with homelessness; a third discussed issues with employment; a third shared issues with the student’s mental health; and a third shared concerns with special education. Transportation was the most common barrier discussed. This is true despite most families living within walking distance from the school. In some cases, transportation became a barrier because there were multiple children in the family attending different schools located in the opposite direction. In other cases, transportation was a barrier because the parent’s physical health condition restricted the parent’s mobility and the child was too young to walk to-and-from school independently. On average, each family shared about three barriers that impacted school attendance.
Finally, our office proactively sought feedback from families during distance learning. We surveyed families of students receiving special education services that we had worked with in the past two years. A few highlights of the data are offered here. Fifty-five percent of the families we spoke with were either very satisfied or more than satisfied with communication from special education instructors. Concerning IEP implementation during distance learning, there was an even split on the opposite ends of the spectrum with slightly more families being less than satisfied with the implementation. Roughly 18 percent of families reported being satisfied with implementation. For the purpose of this survey, “satisfaction” served as the neutral response option. Some of the families that selected the neutral option also explained that they were happy with the school’s effort, but that scheduling did not allow for mobility and their children were over-scheduled. These parents reported being overwhelmed managing communications and needing behavioral support for their student during distance learning.
Finally, concerning the likelihood of families seeking compensatory services after distance learning—most families reported they did not intend to seek compensatory services. While fewer families indicated they were likely to seek compensatory services, there was no pattern between satisfaction with communication during COVID-19 and the likelihood of seeking compensatory services. Families indicating that they were either “More than Satisfied” or “Very Satisfied” with IEP implementation were most likely to indicate that they had no intention of seeking compensatory education services. However, “Partially Satisfied” or “Not at All Satisfied” with IEP implementation was not a determining factor regarding the families’ contemplation of seeking compensatory education services. Overall, families seemed understanding of the unprecedented situation. While overwhelmed by the responsibilities of educating their students, especially while juggling work responsibilities, most families expressed patience and were willing to wait and see how regression was addressed after school resumed. It is difficult to predict when the grace that families have extended during distance learning will expire, especially given that few likely anticipated that distance learning would continue for as long as it has.
Since in-person family engagement has been restricted, the Office expanded its digital contact with families by distributing newsletters containing resources and information for families. We also improved our social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Our office developed three mid-year recommendations in SY 2019-20—(1) require the transfer of 504 Plans when students transition to a new school; (2) develop a plan for digitizing archived student records; and (3) revise DCPS’s “Determining If K-12 Students Needs Special Education” policy.
In this report, we make three new recommendations specific to special education. The first recommendation is to apply a holistic approach to special education, especially when the student’s disability is classified under the Other Health Impairment category. The second recommendation relates to delayed special education eligibility determinations during distance learning. We recommend three solutions: (1) expand access to parent trainings to families who suspect their student might have a disability; (2) increase the use of Independent Educational Evaluations; and (3) develop, improve, and use Response to Intervention as an interim resource pending evaluation.