For parents or students having conflicts with their schools or teachers, there is now a place for them to turn.
The Office of the Education Ombudsman is a relatively new agency within the governor's office that connects parents, students and educators to information and answers and hopes to bring families and schools together to improve student achievement. The ombudsman has been offering services for about eight months so far. It is the first state-level ombudsman office in the nation for K-12 education.
The office's goal is to promote equity in education and academic success for all students attending elementary and secondary schools in the state. Their job is to listen, inform and bring families together to solve conflict and promote school-family partnership around across the state.
"The goal is to help families, legal guardians and the students themselves understand the public system to learn how to advocate better for themselves or for their children and resolve conflict with schools," said Director Adie Simmons.
The office was established after a group of legislators in Olympia kept hearing from their constituents that there was no place for families to call when they had questions about the education system or when they had conflict with the school that wasn't getting resolved.
Simmons said parents or students can call the ombudsman's office for various reasons: if they are interested in a program in the public school system and need more information on how it would benefit them; if they're not sure about what their rights in education are; how to meet with a school official and what to say; or if they need information on the education standards in Washington state.
Simmons said there are several ways to resolve conflict. After providing the complainant with information, some parents and students will call them for advice and then they go back to the school and advocate for themselves.
"There are formal and informal ways to do that," Simmons said.
In other situations, Simmons said the parents and students feel they have tried everything and are ready to file a formal complaint.
"If there is a conflict and they're not getting through and they're not solving the conflict by themselves, they can call us and we can help," Simmons said. "We are sort of a neutral third party, we don't take sides but we help people understand what the options are and how to best resolve conflict."
Simmons said in the past six months they have received around 178 complaints.
"We can do a lot of work on the behalf of the student to make sure they succeed," Simmons said. "We ensure that some benefit comes to the student."
The ombudsman's office offers free conflict-resolution services and resources and has four multicultural ombudsmen to consult and coach with parents, students and educators over the phone to address their issues and solve conflicts between schools. The ombudsmen have been trained as problem solvers and include two former teachers, an attorney and a family therapist. They encourage parents and students to think through options and help them solve problems. They try to offer fair, neutral advice, help families understand the system and students participate in schools. All calls are confidential.
"We are particularly looking to help families from different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities. We know that sometimes they are the ones who have the need to understand the system, to ensure that their kids get the best education possible. They are the ones who don't know who to call so we really need to let families know that now there is a place that they can turn to, now there is someone who will listen," Simmons said.
The ombudsman takes formal complaints from parents, legal guardians or students but only in writing. Complaint forms are available at www.governor.wa. gov/oeo/complaint/default.asp and are translated into seven languages.
For those callers not ready to file a formal complaint, the office has recently expanded its services to offer informal, one-on-one consultation to callers. Some callers just need a third-party assessment of the situation, information about their options or some resources to tackle the problems themselves. Two ombudsman offer consulting services and two intervene in formal complaints.
By adding consulting, the office hopes to resolve conflict at the lowest level and intercept potential problems before they escalate. Just two months after adding these new services, the office has found about half of their calls fall into the consulting category.
They also offer a language phone line which translates into over 100 languages so that almost anyone can call in and talk with an ombudsman.
Seven brochures can be downloaded for free at the Web site in English, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian and Korean. Their Web site also includes topics such as the WASL, graduation requirements, conflict-resolution tips, family and parents support services as well as suggestions about getting involved in school.
If you need assistance, call the ombudsman toll-free, Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., at 866-297-2597 or visit www.waparentslearn.org.