When something goes wrong, parents of D.C. special-education students dial the call center.

The call center is housed in the Office of the State Superintendent for Education’s Department of Transportation, and handles 330 calls a day — about one call for every 11 students who the city buses to school, because their neighborhood school can’t provide the special-education services the student requires.

Depending on whom you ask, the call center is a place where inspirational messages are passed out every morning and volunteers are extremely responsive to parents’ concerns. Or it’s a place where annoyed employees tell you the bus broke down, but can’t tell you where the bus is — or just tells you to keep your child at home.

At a hearing on special-education transportation convened by D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown on Monday, parents and local officials testified to concerns with the call center and progress it may have made.

“You should be happy someone is coming to pick up your child and take them to school,” is something that Marty Clark, a parent and Ward 7 resident, says he was told by call center operators.

When the air conditioner broke on the school bus that takes his special-needs daughter to Baltimore, Clark says he was asked, “If you knew the AC was broken on the bus, why didn’t you keep your baby at home?”

Clark testified that he had to investigate the Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, of other students on his daughter’s bus until he could prove that one of the student’s special needs entailed a comfortable air temperature.

He recalled a time when he was told the bus was broken down, but officials couldn’t give him a location. His daughter called to let him know she was three blocks from home. He picked her up.

Ja’Sent Brown, a member of the D.C. State Advisory Panel on Special Education and OSSE’s program manager for homeless education, says she was similarly disillusioned when she volunteered with the call center a year ago.

“I can recall a bus that caught on fire and there was no sense of urgency in the parent call center from the staff,” Brown testified. Buses were late, or didn’t show up at all, and parents were kept on hold for too long. At the center, Brown felt “belittled.”

But when she returned this year, at Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley’s urging, Brown says she discovered a completely changed system.

“Everyone had a clear assignment and was trained properly to perform it,” she said. A dedicated line for bus dispatchers had been implemented to keep them off the parent lines, and every morning, the director, Kim Davis, passed out an inspirational message.

In an urgent situation, Brown discovered a dedicated response team. When a student was sent to the wrong school, the team coached the school through accommodating the student’s needs until another bus could arrive.

But the experiences Clark testified to occurred this summer and this semester, he said, creating a disparate picture of the call center’s effectiveness.

The council chairman said he was concerned by the conflicting picture. “This was this summer, this didn’t happen two years ago,” he said. “If the bus is broken down, someone should call you and say the bus is running late, and they should know exactly where the bus is broken down at.”

OSSE began outfitting its fleet with GPS tracking in October, and Mahaley testified to a new dashboard system at the call centers that records everything from who’s on the line to how long the call lasts. OSSE also hired in-house mechanics to cut down on repair times of broken buses.

“We do not tolerate disrespect of anyone,” Mahaley said. She urged parents who have been disrespected by the Department of Transportation to call 202-421-1029 to register the complaint.

The city spends about $92 million to transport 3,500 special-needs students across D.C., Virginia and Maryland. In January, officials plan to expand a program that trains special-education students to use Metro transit to get to school.

Sources : A tale of two call centers

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