Joyanna Smith faces a daunting task: She's responsible for mediating conflicts between the 80,000 students attending D.C. public and charter schools and the thousands of teachers and administrators that make up the bureaucracy charged with educating them.
But the newly appointed ombudsman for public education doesn't seem nervous about the job that involves relaying concerns from students and parents to the school system.
"It’s not daunting to me. I’m very passionate about education, especially urban education," Smith says. "This is really just an exciting opportunity not just for me, but for the city to have in order to have an office where we can help people resolve their complaints and work in a collaborative manner."
Smith is the second person to hold the office after it was created in 2007. Her predecessor only lasted a year, and a lack of funding meant that her position remained unfilled for five years, a period of dramatic change for local schools. Last year, D.C. Council Member David Catania (I-At Large) set aside $279,000 for the office, and Smith formally started on Feb. 24.
"The main task is to provide conflict resolution services to families, parents and students in all areas that affect student learning. We will be a clearinghouse for all complaints, concerns and issues," Smith says. "Essentially, I envision myself as a problem-solver."
An attorney who has worked for the D.C. government as well as the city's first all-girls public charter school, Smith also says that her office will serve to help parents get their questions answered.
"We also serve as an information resource," she says. "Sometimes parents or families will call us and want to know more about IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], want to know more about, you know, ‘I have a child who has an IEP [Individual Education Program] and I’m concerned that it has not been fully implemented’ or ‘I don’t understand my rights under the law, can you help explain those to me?’”
Smith knows that the ever-present uncertainties with the city's many educational options and the large school bureaucracies will keep her busy — "We have already received a number of complaints, so it’s very busy," she says — and she's looking to hire an associate ombudsman, and potentially more staff.
And while it will be her job to mediate between students, parents and the schools educating them, Smith says she won't shy away from being a strong advocate for parents.
"I am a mediator, and that is the role of the office. But certainly we take it very seriously that parents have equal access, and that students have equal access to education. We will always be firm when advocating for rights of the parents and making sure they’re fully informed as to the rights of their own students," Smith says.
To submit a concern or complaint, parents, guardians and students can reach the Office of the Ombudsman at (202) 741-0888, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Complaints can also be submitted through the State Board of Education’s website.