Palo Alto Unified's director of special education, Alma Ellis, is leaving for a job closer to her home, the district announced on Friday.
Ellis remained in the department during a time of turnover and transition. Ellis, a program specialist and then special-education program coordinator, and Stephanie Sheridan, a longtime JLS Middle School psychologist, were named interim co-directors of special education after the former director resigned mid-year in 2017. Sheridan then left last summer, and Ellis took on the role of director.
The district decided this year to return to the split structure of having separate directors for elementary and secondary special education. Ellis was to oversee elementary services, and the district hired Cynthia Loleng-Perez as director of secondary special education.
Jennifer Baker, a psychologist at Juana Briones Elementary School, will replace Ellis as interim director of special education for the elementary schools for this school year.
Baker brings to the interim role 20 years of experience in California schools, including as a school psychologist, program specialist and special education teacher.
Loleng-Perez most recently managed special-education programs for the Santa Clara County Office of Education. Prior to that, she was the director of special education for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District for two years and the Mountain View Whisman School District for four years. She's also worked as a special-education teacher, principal and compliance officer.
Superintendent Don Austin moved special education this spring to be housed under educational services.
Austin called Ellis "a valuable part of our team." He said her decision to leave Palo Alto after the school year started was for a job in the K-8 San Mateo-Foster City School District with a much shorter commute.
"Having the opportunity to work six minutes from home is something that I am not able to pass on. I am very grateful to (the) Palo Alto Unified School District for giving me the chance to serve and grow in a leadership role," Ellis wrote in an email to the Weekly. "I am leaving PAUSD with a strong special education team, committed to delivering the PAUSD promise with the parent community on their side."
Kimberly Eng-Lee, parent and co-chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, credited Ellis with strengthening relationships with families of special-needs children. With Sheridan and under the new leadership of Lana Conaway, assistant superintendent of equity and student affairs, they laid the groundwork for improvements in services, she said, including an internal evaluation of special-education programs that "resulted in a positive momentum never achieved by any outside consultant," the Community Advisory Committee said in a statement in May.
"They really forged new ground that hadn't been there before and I think they set a tone for their staff and with parents," Eng-Lee told the Weekly. "I think parents are craving that kind of relationship.
"I'm very sorry to see her go both as a person and because of what they had underway," she said of Ellis.
The leadership turnover serves as another reminder, Eng-Lee said, of the importance of having strong processes and structures in place for special education that endure despite who is in charge.
The district also hired a new special-education coordinator, Robert Whalen, a longtime school psychologist and former marriage and family therapist. Jacqueline Selfridge, who worked as an education specialist at Palo Alto Unified's high schools, moved to the district level this year as a program specialist.