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Next week, special ed director follows her old boss’s trail to D.C.

Phyllis Harris, who has overseen Oakland’s special education programs since July 2003, leaves her job next week — a fact that many have speculated about or known for over a month. She’s moving East to be the deputy chancellor for special education in D.C. Public Schools.

Curiously, the head of the Oakland school district also just took a job in D.C. Last month, Kim Statham accepted a position in the Washington’s new state department of education.

Harris says she has trained Lisa Ryan Cole, a 25-year district employee and an “outstanding (special education) coordinator,” to replace her, at least on an interim basis. Ryan Cole was a teacher and, most recently, the middle schools coordinator for the department.

Harris said the D.C. offer was too good to pass up. ”It’s an opportunity to change the special education system in the national capital, which has some improving to do.”

The Examiner last month reported she was offered a salary of $200,000.

Though Harris will soon join the growing list of departed administrators, she said she had nothing but good things to say about her experience in Oakland. “I learned a huge amount in the six years I’ve been here,”  she said. (Before becoming the director of Programs for Exceptional Children, she helped create the new teacher support department.)

Her last day is next Wednesday.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Marijke Conklin

    I am a graduate of DC Public Schools, and a special education teacher in Oakland Unified. I am interested in learning more about how Harris impacted the special education department in Oakland. Could someone provide quantifiable information?

    There is a trend in public education to use data to evaluate students and rate teachers. Specifically, some schools are using three things to determine pay for teachers: administrator evaluations, test score improvement, and parent satisfaction. So we do not rely on hearsay or gossip, it may be helpful to extend those indicators to evaluate the success of administration as well. The idea would be to pause for reflection, and also discuss what this move might mean for Washington, DC.

    For example, I’ve heard Harris was responsible for reducing the budget and bolstering programs for Autism. Some people have lauded those moves; many have criticized them. Since I’m relatively new, I don’t know what special education looked like before.

    I do know my class has grown 50 percent in the last three years. I have spent significant time without an assistant. Some parents I’ve spoken with have reported difficult experiences. My conversations with new and veteran teachers indicate the special education system as a whole continues to suffers from a variety of concerns including: growing class sizes, lack of instructional assistant staff, lack of appropriate materials, rapid teacher turnover and scarce itinerant services.

    Without hard data, it is impossible to comment definitively. What do special education classrooms in Oakland look like now versus a few years ago? Do we have research? photos? Testimony from parents, staff, instructional assistants, therapists, psychologists? Statistics on improvements from Programs for Exceptional Children? A comprehensive staff satisfaction or parent evaluation? Student achievement scores? These are questions a report on special education in the district may be able to answer.

  • Pam Curtiss-Horton

    Thank goodness Harris didn’t claim to have done anything to improve the special education system in Oakland while she was here. Special Education seems to have become one of the lowest priorities for OUSD. The class sizes are outrageously large, 16 students in our 1st Grade SDC class, 15 in the 2nd/3rd combination. We are fortunate, at Bella Vista, to have awesome SDC teachers and I.A.s who work tirelessly to provide a quality program, but not many teachers will be able to avoid burnout with the high class sizes and little support provided. Our neediest students need the MOST support, not to be neglected and warehoused. OUSD and OEA must come together to ensure lower class sizes for SDC classes!

  • Mother of a child

    I won’t be crying any tears over her departure. She was very proud of reducing budget by bringing kids out of NPS programs and expanding in-school programs — but I did not see improvements for kids like my child. Perhaps there were improvements in autism programs, I don’t know; my child is not autistic. What I saw is that there weren’t enough speech therapists and the two “floating” Assistive Communications/Technologies specialists both left and the district was without any AAC specialists outside of the TACLE classroom for a very long time — I believe almost a year. The class I’m familiar with is overcrowded. Some of the kids actually learn in a converted supply closet! Also, I found her excrutiatingly difficult to work with: Defensive about her own lack of special needs background, bloviating. She suggested that the services I wanted for my daughter would actually impair her learning! When I brought in a developmental pediatrician and a neuropsychologist to support my position, she dismissed their conclusions because they weren’t educators. She later admitted that at the time she made the comment she hadn’t actually read their reports.

    I’m looking forward to a new regime. I know nothing about the interim director, but am heartened she actually has experience.

  • Teacher SDC/SH

    Dr Harris’ departure is welcomed by all in the department. The district spent THOUSANDS for a consultant from Sacramento to teach her the most basic facts relating to Special Education.

    Dr Harris was abrasive, arrogant, abusive and rude to both staff and parents.

    For those of us who have been around long enough to have experienced many Directors of Special Ed, we found Dr Harris to be similar, in many ways, to most. That is, she was ignorant and incompetent. The one exception to the bevy of dismal Special Ed directors was Ms Vivian Lura. She had a thorough knowledge of all aspects of Special Ed—the laws, the programs, the needs of her staff, the parents of kids with special needs, and most importantly, the kids, themselves.

    Oh well, why should I be surprised? Afterall, I work in a thoroughly dysfuncional district that, on a consistent basis, puts the needs of our most needy students at the very bottom of the barrel.

    Our gain is Washington D.C.’s loss!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Teacher SDC/SH

    I’m amazed that our “top” administrators are able to leave OUSD at the rustle of a lot of cash—the kids be DAMNED!

    If a teacher attempted to do the same, his/her credential would be pulled by the district and we would be unable to work in any kind of teaching position in California for the period of one year.

    It’s not that I’m sorry to see both Dr. Statham nor Dr. Harris leave. It belies their dedication to Oakland’s children. I pity the students in Washington D.C. who will suffer another batch of incompetent “leaders”.

    Having worked under the exceptional leadership of a truly caring Director of Special Education, Ms. Vivian Lura, who was summarily terminated to the detriment of the students, parents, and staff, I am appalled that Drs. Statham and Harris were allowed to abandon ship at the beginning of the school year. I only wish Jack O’Connell were accompanying them.

  • Parent of a special ed student

    I couldn’t agree more with all the negatives said about Phyllis Harris. I have never met a more self-absorbed individual, which is exactly the opposite of most of the teachers and administrators I’ve worked with in her department. She managed to demoralize and alienate every single person working under her, as far as I could see. And bottom of her list were the kids for whom she was supposed to be delivering service, who are the neediest in our district.

    Phyllis may well have brought many autism services in-house. But my child isn’t autistic, and her services have diminished over Phyllis’s years at OUSD. Her SDC is overcrowded, teachers are overworked and short aides, and there is little support for them at the district level. Workability has been cut to the bone, three people for the entire school district, so there simply is nobody to forget relationships with potential employers. I am fortunate that my daughter has a speech therapist; most high school students do not.

    I wish Lisa Cole well in rebuilding morale in Dr. Harris’s wake.

  • Donald Barks

    I am a parent of a 15 year old boy with autism. Some years ago, Vivian Lura began to respond to the growing population of autistic students at OUSD schools. These programs have been quite successful. One element of their success has been the involvement of the parents.

    Dr. Harris eliminated several staff positions early in her tenure as Director of Special Ed. It was the concerted efforts of the parents that kept the high standards within the Autism/Aspergers programs.

    Unfortunately, as there is always competition (every parent wants the best for their own child), and as the Autism/Aspergers community met with continued success issues seem to have arisen for the parenst of non-autism/aspergers students. I attribute some of this tension to Dr. Harris’ management style.

    I hope that with the change in management of the department that we are able to continue and improve on the quality of the Autism/Aspergers programs. I also hope that the broader Special Education community can come together in a more constructive and collaborative manner. Within the Autism/Aspergers community, there has been a great deal of sharing o modes, techniques, and specific IEP language. It is this collaboration which has ensured the success of the Autism/Aspergers programs. It is this sort of effort that is required to advance all children with special needs.

  • Sue

    I don’t want to see any more lionizing of Dr. Harris for the district’s successful programs
    for students on the autism spectrum. She deserves none of the credit for those
    successes. Her predecessor, Vivian Lura, started the ASIP program in her last year as
    director of special programs. When the state took over the district in 2003, the district attempted to gut these programs like every other special education program.

    The reason this program survived was the parents of these children banded together,
    advocated tirelessly for our children and our programs, and shared our successes,
    our frustrations, our IEPs, and any tidbits of legal advice, news or gossip. We
    collaborated to preserve what our kids needed, and we would not stop, give up or go
    away and leave the district to do its worst.

    Our son is in the ASIP program at Skyline, and there are still issues and problems that
    need to be fixed, but he wouldn’t be there having another good year without the help of
    our friends, the other ASIP parents.
    I would be thrilled to see every special needs child in the district benefit from the same successful advocacy. Perhaps our new interim director will be open to collaborating with parents, and using our successful program as a model for serving students with other
    kinds of disabilities.

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