In the midst of Palo Alto Unified's efforts to reform its special-education department, the school district announced Tuesday that director is resigning mid-year, after only a year and a half on the job.
Chiara Perry, who took over the special-education department in 2015, will leave on March 17 to become the director of special education for the Campbell Union School District, she said Wednesday.
The district has named two staff members who work in special education as interim co-directors until the district finds a replacement for Perry. Alma Ellis, a relatively new special-education program coordinator, and Stephanie Sheridan, a longtime psychologist at JLS Middle School, will begin to transition into their new roles this month, the district said.
"While we are saddened by the departure of Ms. Perry, we are also grateful to her for the four years she dedicated serving PAUSD students and their families," Superintendent Max McGee said in the announcement. "Because of the expertise in the field of special education that she brought to PAUSD and her hard work improving our services, I am confident that this will be a smooth transition."
The announcement comes at a time of transition and introspection for the department, which has been working to respond to an external review that identified some "promising" practices in special education, but also serious deficiencies in the district's approach to serving students with special needs and their families.
Perry told the Weekly her decision was driven by a desire for a better work-life balance -- Campbell Union is much closer to her south San Jose home -- and "had nothing to do with" the fact that she took over what had been an often embattled department at a challenging time.
Perry was named director in 2015 as part of a reorganization of the department. She replaced Holly Wade, who was promoted that year to chief student services officer but has remained a consistent presence at public meetings on special education.
Special-education parent-leaders were heartened at the time by the department's restructuring, but are again urging a deeper, more systemic approach to improving services and relationships with special-education families.
In a statement provided to the Weekly, Kimberly Eng Lee, chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee (CAC), and longtime parent-advocate Christina Schmidt called Perry's departure a "loss." She showed "great promise," they said, "with a strong vision to empower all children and staff, and the ability to heal 'old wounds.'"
"We are concerned with how the district will continue the initiatives Director Perry has begun, and how PAUSD will move forward through uncharted waters to carry out the recommendations from a less than complete special education review," they said.
"We hope that PAUSD leadership will commit to focusing on the much needed improvements in the identification process, and delivery of specific supports and early, intensive interventions in the classroom."
The parent leaders said they expect "courageous leadership" from the school board and Perry's replacement, "if PAUSD is to be successful in delivering a truly rigorous and inclusive learning environment for students in special education."
In the interim, the two interim co-directors will report directly to Wade, McGee told the Weekly. He will also meet with them monthly, or more, he said. The directors of elementary and secondary education also meet weekly with Ellis and Sheridan, respectively.
Ellis has been a program specialist for Palo Alto elementary schools since 2015, according to the district. Before that, she worked as a program specialist in the Sequoia Union High School District and Compton Unified School District for several years. She also served as an autism consultant for various companies and programs.
Sheridan has been a school psychologist in Palo Alto since 2004. Before that, she worked in the same role in the San Mateo-Foster City School District.
To cover the interim directors' existing job responsibilities, the district is making two current part-time school psychologists full-time and realigning the responsibilities of a third, according to the announcement.
The district said it plans to launch a formal, nationwide search for a permanent director in the next few weeks.