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Palo Alto Unified special-education director to leave

School psychologist to serve as interim director of elementary special education this year

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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.


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4 people like this
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 26, 2019 at 10:07 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

Turnover is hard for any group, but it would seem especially difficult in this area of education. And, I don't know any reason for the departure of Ms Ellis other than the ones given (job closer to home).

That said, I would be very interested in finding out how the average staff member from the various groups (aids, teachers, principals, administrators, and classified workers) across the district might be feeling under the new Superintendent.

There are aspects of his reign (yes, I chose that word intentionally) that I appreciate and feel are needed within our district. While there are other areas where I feel as if he is too interested in being the "tough guy" and might not be the best fit for our area.

The jury is out...what do the employees of the district think? The best gauge would be elementary school principals. Of course the ones who are great at their jobs will never speak up.

Has telling truth to power ever been rewarded in our district?

5 people like this
Posted by Yuri
a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2019 at 1:11 pm

The PR blitz ("The Promise", the Superintendent's monthly "magazine", etc.) can't mask the fact that PAUSD is not a teacher friendly district. More demands, fewer resources, unrealistic expectations, and lack of true leadership take a toll. Forget all the words, and look at the actions emanating from 25 Churchill.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 28, 2019 at 1:25 pm

"what do the employees of the district think? The best gauge would be elementary school principals."

When McGee was in the process of getting moved out, PAMA, primarily a principals group, did some kind of joint letter from their members, claiming overwhelming support for keeping McGee. Diorio at Paly also loved him. Thank goodness no-one listened. I'm not sure the principals are the best judge of what kind of leadership is best for the district / students.

4 people like this
Posted by Pa
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 31, 2019 at 12:06 pm

You’re my hero for helping to point out the bull@&(^.

5 people like this
Posted by Teacher friendly
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Aug 31, 2019 at 12:32 pm

Teachers have tons of power in the district and also tons of resources in a huge salary relative to the public sector.

3 people like this
Posted by pa
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2019 at 4:41 pm

and no accountability for quality or lawlessness, and probably no recognition for doing great.

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