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Back in the 1980s, Sister ShemaYah learned a thing or two battling

D.C.’s special education system. Now she’s giving lessons.

Photographs by Charles Steck

Standing out front of a modest brick home, set on the quiet, tree-infested streets of D.C.’s Woodridge neighborhood, you may find it hard to believe that this unassuming house has been the breeding ground of an uprising. Twice.

And the round-faced, wide-smiled woman who opens the front door, dressed in veil and long dress? She doesn’t look like much of a revolutionary. But she’s been there and back. Twice.

Sister ShemaYah greets you, all bright eyes and “Good afternoons,” in a voice that very nearly sings. But there’s muscle behind the mirth. A stout woman with outstretched arms, she fills up the doorway in greeting. She could—depending on the needs of the moment—body-slam you back onto the front walkway or pull you into a warm, grandmotherly embrace.

Sister ShemaYah—Cheryl Shropshire before a religious mentor gave her a Hebrew name in 1995—usually sticks with the hug, but she’s as comfortable with confrontation as she is with her family. Her pattern in life is one of engagement. She’ll get up in your face and, before you snap back, bust you out with a big, jolly laugh.

Tonight—just as she did 15 years ago—she’s invited a group of parents to sit in a circle, knees practically touching, for a tutorial on battling the monolith of D.C.’s special education system. The mother of a dyslexic son who struggled through D.C. schools, 49-year-old ShemaYah knows what it’s like to fight for a quality education in a school system that has trouble teaching the best and brightest—let alone kids who need serious extra attention.

She got that attention for her child by paying attention herself—for years. Her constant vigilance, combined with the instincts of a street fighter, has made a lasting impact on a system that isn’t exactly known for responsiveness. Her fight began in 1981, when school officials said her son qualified for special education services, and then receded as he finally made his way out of the crippled system. Now she’s back, no longer with a child in the system, but still hellbent on making sure that special needs receive special treatment.

“She doesn’t have the finesse and polish that some so-called professionals have, but she’s a great motivator,” says Chris Llewellyn, parent outreach coordinator for the D.C. Down Syndrome Association. “And she’s very patient. I think the services she provides are much more valuable….They’re from the heart.”

It’s all very home-grown and homespun. The people who show up at ShemaYah’s house in search of tactical advice are greeted by a small sign written in black felt-tip marker: “Families & Friends of Special Children.”

It’s 4:15 on a Saturday afternoon. The rest of the group is not expected to arrive for another 15 minutes, but ShemaYah’s already getting down to it at a rickety dining-room table with parent Chaundra. Chaundra says she’s been struggling for two-and-a-half years to find the proper school for her 9-year-old son, who has been diagnosed as “mild mentally retarded.”

After her son was diagnosed, he spent two years in a crowded public-school classroom, where he progressed little, says Chaundra. She complained to school officials, so they moved him to a private school in Alexandria. But Chaundra says that that particular school is for children with disabilities that are more severe than her son’s, and that since his enrollment, he’s become more upset and aggressive at home.

ShemaYah’s heard it before. When it comes to special ed in the District, school officials have been notoriously tight-lipped about explaining student evaluations to parents and guiding them to determine which schools best suit their children, says ShemaYah. Overcrowded classrooms and a shortage of programs mean that kids can be left underserved in D.C. schools. Often, adds ShemaYah, children can be mislabeled and then placed in private programs that don’t serve them well. ShemaYah’s new venture pushes for more parental involvement and encourages parents to be vigilant about their own child’s education and to demand systemwide changes.

Right now, she’s starting with Chaundra. Sitting at the table, the two pore over the fine print of her son’s Individualized Education Program, a blueprint the school district uses to customize a teaching plan for each special education student. Circle anything you don’t understand, ShemaYah tells Chaundra. “Sometimes they set outrageous goals,” ShemaYah says. “You ask them if they think your son will be able to do this. If they say yes, you hold them to it. If they say no, you take them to court.”

In between the one-on-one tutorial, ShemaYah’s prepping the evening’s dinner and fielding the phone calls. The rest of the parents arrive a little after 4:30. ShemaYah bustles around to greet each one, make introductions, offer drinks, and seat them all comfortably in the living room. She starts the presentation with just a bit of fanfare: “Welcome to a new grass-roots parent-to-parent training program. We will begin with a moment of silence.”

That moment, as it turns out, will be the last quiet one of the night. It takes only a few minutes before the 10 or so parents in the room tear into a loud crisscross of problems, strategies, and agendas. They talk about the need for quicker student evaluations, more teachers, reliable transportation. ShemaYah is a Rolodex of answers, numbers, and factoids, in between ducking out to tend to her stew.

“This is like deje vu,” ShemaYah says from the doorway to the kitchen, a can of kidney beans in her hand.

It’s easy to see it through her eyes. The scene probably looked much like this back in 1984, when ShemaYah first decided to turn her living room into a war room to fight the bureaucracy of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Along with a handful of other parents, ShemaYah formed a group called D.C. Parents & Friends of Children With Special Needs, which lobbied the school district for better transportation, better programs, and better placements for their kids in special education. They wrote letters, made phone calls, held demonstrations, and spoke out at meetings.

And it all added up. ShemaYah says her group convinced school officials to improve teacher training and to provide a handbook to parents explaining special education programs. The group’s pushing also encouraged school heads to add a comment section to each child’s education planning sheet, so that parents could provide written input. School officials responded to complaints about transportation and even attended some of the meetings at ShemaYah’s house.

ShemaYah’s commitment paid off for her own son, too. Atiba Shropshire, now 24, struggled through some of his special education classes in grade school and middle school but eventually managed to mainstream into regular ed in high school. In 1995, he graduated from Dunbar High School with a 3.0 grade-point average.

When Atiba Shropshire graduated, ShemaYah’s battle on behalf of her family was officially over. Her kid had made it, and now it was time for others to take up the torch. But few did. There was no next version of Sister ShemaYah, and kids continued to struggle in a special education system that lacked solid leadership

and any real accountability.

ShemaYah took a break, but she never walked away completely. And now she’s back, banging away again.

“The first time, I had to do it because of a son in special education,” she says. “The first group became like a third child to me. This new group is like a grandchild.”

There are many, many other parents who have had their share of duels with the special education system, but it’s usually been about getting their own kid something. And many of the parent advocacy groups that formed 10 or more years ago now face dwindling membership. But there remains a mass of frustrated parents with few organized groups to help funnel their frustrations and teach them to push for change.

“Most people are not going to stay involved at that level once they don’t have to. She’s really the only person I know who has continued to do it, and come back and formed a new group,” says Beth Goodman, an attorney who represents parents in cases against the DCPS special education system. “There’s a huge gap. There’s no real parents’ movement in special ed in D.C. under the current circumstances….It’s absolutely critical in this atmosphere that parents organize and speak out.”

Sister ShemaYah knows that particular drill.

Members of the elected D.C. Board of Education have their own frustrations with the school system—like their near impotence when it comes to control of the schools, or that pesky D.C. Council proposal to shrink their membership. And for months, President Wilma Harvey’s been griping that it’s just plain wrong that board members don’t have cars and drivers to escort them around town.

ShemaYah should be so lucky. On a Thursday in November, ShemaYah’s up by 7 a.m., in plenty of time to dress and catch the bus to the Metro that will take her to One Judiciary Square—just in time for an early council hearing on special education.

It turns out to be the rare hearing that starts almost on time, only a few minutes after 9 a.m. ShemaYah beats me there. When I arrive at 9:10, she’s already sitting on the edge of her seat, scribbling away on a yellow legal pad—no doubt information she’ll use at one of her next parental conclaves.

About 20 people have shown up for the hearing, including Anne Gay, assistant superintendent for special education, and Elois Brooks, deputy superintendent for DCPS, along with various members of their staffs. D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who chairs the Committee on Education, Libraries & Recreation, as well as a special committee he formed this year to oversee special education, presides over the hearing.

Apart from the government witnesses, there’s not much of a citizen turnout. Most of those who signed up to testify don’t show. ShemaYah didn’t plan on speaking, but she hates to see an open forum go to waste. No need to sign up, she tells me: “Chavous will let me up.”

Chavous does more than that. As the last scheduled witness finishes her final thoughts, he locks eyes on ShemaYah, sitting only a few rows from the front. He recognizes her instantly, his face stretching into a wide, but slightly nervous grin. “You want to talk, too?” he asks, chuckling.

It’s a friendly inquiry, but Chavous knows he’s going to get an earful in return for his invitation. ShemaYah speaks a good 10 minutes, working impromptu but well-structured points on the need for more vocational training and changes in the special education budget. When she finishes, Chavous commends her, not just for her remarks, but for her durability. “Thank you for your commitment, not just to your child but to the city as a whole,” he says from the dais. “It’s largely because of your urging that this committee came into being.”

The hearing was supposed to run until 1 p.m., but the shortage of witnesses means it lets out before noon. ShemaYah sees an opening—the perfect time to catch Chavous in his office. “Now’s the time to get him,” she says. “Before he gets anything else scheduled.”

ShemaYah’s an opportunist. She takes any occasion she can find to corner officials and tell them what she hasn’t been able to over the phone or by letter or in public testimony. “I do things the African or Hebrew way,” she says. “I don’t like letter-writing and phone-calling. I’m a face-to-face person. I’m about community, about meeting and discussing issues.”

With the buses, the catch-as-catch-can meetings, and her constantly multiplying agenda, it’s all a little unorganized, a little scattered, but

ShemaYah is amazingly productive.

“She approaches solutions in a practical manner,” says Tom Kelly, a school board member and chair of its Committee on Alternative Programs and Special Education. “She’s sweet and strong when she needs to be. It’s kind of like ‘by any means necessary.’ We need advocates like that.”

At Chavous’ office, it’s immediately clear that the place is part of ShemaYah’s regular rounds. When we arrive, the receptionist squeals her name and comes running with a hug before seating her on a couch. Other staffers stop by to talk, and she chats them up easily, all the while reminding them that she wants to see the councilmember. He’s in with someone else, they tell her. No problem—she’ll wait.

He emerges after about 15 minutes and ushers her into his office. They sit and chat, reviewing the day’s hearing and the many times they’ve come together in that very same forum. Chavous listens attentively, and, despite an early disclaimer that he has another appointment, he seems in no rush to leave. “Sometimes those of us who are trying to fix problems forget about the people we’re serving. She helps remind me,” he says, no doubt for the benefit of a reporter’s notebook, but by way of tribute to ShemaYah as well.

From Chavous’ office, we head to 825 North Capitol St. NE, the government building that houses the main offices of DCPS and the school board—ShemaYah frequently spends whole days here. On our way there, we stop off for lunch at Union Station. ShemaYah often catches a quick bite there on her way to the North Capitol building, either buying lunch or eating something she has brought from home. Today, she has a Tupperware container with two Del Monte fruit cups and some whole-wheat crackers.

She keeps her “emergency lunch” in a beat-up old black CompuServe shoulder bag, where she stashes everything else she might need for the day. There are a couple of spiral notebooks: a sky-blue one that includes notes on her new parent group and another filled with phone numbers, which she keeps in a Ziploc bag for protection. There are also plenty of fliers in the bag, some for meetings she plans to attend, a good-sized stack advertising her own group. She leaves piles of them in offices all over the city. And, every once in a while, she convinces an employee at one of the offices she visits to let her make a few copies for free.

We’re supposed to be single-handedly fixing chronic problems in the District’s special ed system, but ShemaYah has picked up a few other causes along the way. When we get to the North Capitol building, for instance, she stops at the guards’ desk and points to the empty wall behind them. “You still need a clock up there,” she says. When one guard says they’ve unsuccessfully prodded the building manager for one, she pulls out one of her notebooks and asks the guard to write down the name and phone number of the building manager. “When I have the time, you’ll get a clock,” she says as we head to the elevators.

ShemaYah’s arrival doesn’t merit smiles everywhere we go. At DCPS’s Division of Special Education, located on the sixth floor, the receptionist sees us coming, and his face tightens considerably. ShemaYah mentions that the two have clashed in the past. He doesn’t like the fact that she has co-opted a desk and phone in one of the office’s rooms—a room that used to be a parents center but that now seems little more than a waiting area. ShemaYah calls the area “my office” and camps out there some days, in a perfect place for catching up with phone calls and meeting new parents who stream in and out of the office. “They took away my chair,” ShemaYah says when we arrive, pulling one from the other side of the room.

She makes a few phone calls and buttonholes a scheduler for a meeting with Gay in the spring. Then we’re off to the elevators and up two floors to the Office of Parent Affairs, which supposedly has set up a new parents center. The new director there, Trinette Hawkins, sees us walk through the door and comes over to greet us. She ushers us into the new center, a small, cramped room that’s a fraction of the size of the previous one. “Oh no, this won’t do,” says ShemaYah.

ShemaYah has an opinion about everything and rarely keeps it to herself. But she knows she will see people again and again, so she’s careful to make sure her critiques always include a little honey. “She’s outspoken, but she’s always sweet,” says Larry Gray, legislative chairman for the D.C. Congress of Parent and Teachers Associations and also a former aide for Bernard Gray (no relation), who chaired the school board Committee on Alternative Programs and Special Education in the early 1990s. “She has a way of telling it like it is in a way that doesn’t anger. She does it from a point of view of righteousness. It’s hard to argue with someone who’s being righteous and obviously well-grounded.”

We make a few more stops in the North Capitol building before heading to a meeting in Shaw, sponsored by District Community Voices Organized and Informed for Change in Education, a local group formed to address school issues. It’s 7:30 when we leave, and downtown is emptying out, but ShemaYah heads over to the convention center to catch the end of the mayor’s summit meeting—just in case he veers toward her pet issue.

“There are so many things to do, it’s hard to keep them straight,” she says on the way over. “When I have to do something having to do with special ed, I usually just make the whole day about special ed.”

ShemaYah didn’t grow up railing against the man—it was more Cosby Show than Good Times. She was born Cheryl Wanda Cooke on Sept. 17, 1950, to a father who worked at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and a mother who was a registered nurse. Their work provided ShemaYah and her younger brother with a nice life and nice things in their five-bedroom Woodridge house, the same home where ShemaYah still lives with her 27-year-old daughter, Ashaki Shropshire.

But the idyll didn’t last. ShemaYah raised

Ashaki and Atiba on her own, after her husband, James Shropshire, died from a heroin overdose in 1981. She made it through, the single mother of two kids—one with special needs—by ingenuity and a penchant for spiritual self-invention.

Born into a Baptist family, ShemaYah became Catholic after her mother decided to move the family to that church when ShemaYah was 13. Following the death of her mother, ShemaYah felt the need for a more personal religious outlet. At age 25, she read the Bible—really read it—for herself. She found what she believed to be glaring inconsistencies between its tenets and her Catholic faith. Since then, she’s been in constant pursuit of a faith that matches her own reading of the Bible, but none of the standard denominations have been quite the right fit. “When a church doesn’t do what it says it’s going to do in the Bible, she moves on,” says Ashaki Shropshire. “It’s become a joke in the family. We ask her, ‘OK, what religion are you this week?’ It sounds drastic, but for my mom, it’s just part of the sequence.”

ShemaYah decided that if she couldn’t find a religion that fit, she’d more or less found one. In 1992, after a 40-day fast, she decided to wear a long veil and dress—in deference to a scriptural tenet that says people should be covered when they worship. A religious elder from the Meeting Tent of the Congregation of eYahushua, a Messianic Hebrew group that considers the man known to Christians as Jesus to be the messiah, gave ShemaYah her Hebrew name in 1995. (Translated, it means “hear Yah”—the Hebrew name for God.) She added the “Sister” herself.

Her kids indulged her new identity. “Everyone jumped in and said, ‘OK, what do you want to be called now? ShemaYah? OK, we’ll call you ShemaYah,’” says Ashaki Shropshire. “I’m surprised it’s kept this long.”

ShemaYah now describes herself as a “Messianic Islamic Hebrew” and sends her tithing—or 10 percent of her income—to a Messianic Hebrew congregation based in Pittsburgh. A Richmond, Va.-based group called the Order of Melchizedek, another group of Messianic Hebrews, also helps her with her studies. “When I was growing up, I always went along with whatever was told to me,” she says. “Now the spirit leads me. And I’m seeking a group that is seeing the scripture the way I’m seeing it.”

But when it came to the education of her kids, she couldn’t short-order her way to a comfortable place. Intellectually and spiritually, she felt compelled to take on what she believed to be a fundamental injustice. So what started as a few scuffles with DCPS soon became an all-out war with its special education division.

ShemaYah first became entangled with special education in 1981 after a relative urged her to have Atiba Shropshire tested, when family members noticed he had trouble learning to read. A test at a local clinic identified the 6-year-old as “borderline LD.” (ShemaYah learned that “LD” meant “learning disabled” and that her son was dyslexic only through later parent workshops she sought out on her own.) ShemaYah took the test results to D.C. school officials to find out more, but they offered little assistance in understanding the diagnosis or information about what services they had to offer. The meager options suggested by D.C. school officials left her unimpressed, so she hired an attorney, who secured her son a placement at a private school in Bethesda. DCPS paid the tab.

The school system also provided bus transportation to the school, part of which later relocated to Rockville, but the bus was always late or breaking down. Things got worse when, in 1983, days before Atiba was to begin a summer school program at the Rockville school, DCPS officials decided they would not provide transportation during the summer months. ShemaYah and other parents, like Oneita Kelton, were irate. Kelton encouraged ShemaYah to contact the media. Days later, the two were on Channel 9 Eyewitness News, broadcasting their complaints about DCPS, says ShemaYah. “That was it—she had had it,” recalls Ashaki Shropshire.

Parents had been meeting occasionally in ShemaYah’s living room, but the gatherings became more frequent and more organized following the TV appearances. The room was transformed into a sort of special ed advocacy headquarters, the coffee table overwhelmed by fliers and information sheets and other special ed literature. In 1984, the parents formed D.C. Parents & Friends of Children With Special Needs, a group that would lobby for parents’ and students’ rights with letter campaigns, fliers, phone calls, and demonstrations for the next 10 years.

ShemaYah spent whatever free time and money she could spare—and a lot that she couldn’t—on the special ed group. She would make late-night treks to Kinko’s to make photocopies and would then stay up even later to finish mailings. The phone rang constantly.

“There were a lot of people coming to the house all the time,” says Ashaki Shropshire. “There were late-night mailings where we were up until 2 or 3 in the morning….We lived and breathed special education for so long.”

The hard work had its payoffs. “When I started 15 years ago, I didn’t even know the director of special ed,” says ShemaYah. “But by the time I finished, in the early 1990s, she knew me, and she was afraid to see me coming.”

Goodman says ShemaYah’s tenacity sets her apart. “She maintains her contacts, and when she’s trying to get something done, she draws on all of her resources. That’s how she continues to get things done that virtually no one else seems to do,” says Goodman. “As far as I’ve seen, there’s nobody else who’s been able to have a real grass-roots parent group of any kind.”

But her dedication to the cause made everyday life difficult for ShemaYah and her children. Apart from the whirlwind work with the special ed group, ShemaYah needed to work to bring in money. She quit a full-time job at the post office in 1980 and began receiving Social Security checks after her husband died, but she had to pick up part-time work to make ends meet: at Roy Rogers, then doing demonstrations for sales companies. Off and on, she’d try and pick up extra cash by selling Avon or fruitcakes—a mail-order business her father passed on to her, complete with 300 customers.

On Mother’s Day 1990, all the pressures came home to roost. ShemaYah remembers little of the day. But Ashaki Shropshire recalls that her mother had been making phone calls in the kitchen all morning—her usual routine. She came upstairs to her daughter’s bedroom and started conversing wildly—only Shropshire says she wasn’t making sense. “She got in a paranoid mode. She didn’t know what was going on,” Shropshire recalls. “She kept asking what time it was. She was delusional.”

Shropshire called other members of the family, and they decided to take ShemaYah to Providence Hospital in Northeast Washington. Doctors first diagnosed her condition as schizophrenia. They now call it “bipolar disorder,” a condition that can cycle between hyperactivity and periods of depression. ShemaYah has been hospitalized a couple of times since, and she now takes daily medication and attends group therapy sessions.

The people who said she was crazy to take on something as convoluted as special education were partly right. ShemaYah says her health never affected her advocacy, but her obsessiveness was undoubtedly part of what made her such a force over the years. Her children saw the breakdown as a clear sign that their mother needed to quit spending so much time looking after special education and more time looking after herself.

With Atiba Shropshire well on his way to a smooth graduation, ShemaYah finally cut back on the jihad. She left D.C. Parents & Friends of Children With Special Needs in 1994. After that, she attended a few school meetings and kept in touch with parents, but was hardly as active as she had been.

Before she left the group, she encouraged fellow group leaders to create a parent program to train successors for the day when they, too, would decide to move on. ShemaYah even tried running one such program before she left, but she says she lacked the support from fellow group leaders and suggests that they turned down several opportunities to apply for grant money to continue and extend the program. Group leaders, like current President Susie King, say their time and energy were already in high demand when they decided to pass on applying to grants for parental training.

“We’re working parents, and we have to deal with DCPS,” says King. “I don’t think it was a lack of interest as much as it was a lack of time.”

Beginning in 1994, ShemaYah watched as her fears about a lack of parent advocacy came true. She continued to pitch the idea of a parent-training group to D.C. Parents & Friends and others. No interest. So, eventually, ShemaYah decided to create the program herself. Again.

“I’m a needaholic,” says ShemaYah. “If I see the need and no one else sees the need, I just go ahead and roll up my sleeves and do it.”

Last fall, she started the Families & Friends of Special Children, again in her living room. The group applied for a $2,000 grant from a Petworth church but didn’t get it, so ShemaYah runs

her show at her own expense, with the help of

a few dollars that people pay for child care at the meetings.

A special education advocate who declined to be identified says that ShemaYah has alienated some other activists with her single-minded pursuit of the parent-training program and that she chose to create her own because she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—play well with other groups. “There were these existing places where she could have put her energy, but she chose not to do that,” says the advocate.

ShemaYah says she was happy to work with others, but had no takers. Since its creation, Families & Friends has functioned as a boot camp for parents who wander into the system and find a thicket. The program provides support sessions for parents, as well as training for them to become advocates for change in the special education system.

ShemaYah’s is hardly a polished presentation. The charts she uses for instruction—she sets them up on an easel next to her—are homemade and come with spelling errors. ShemaYah sticks to the basics: laws, definitions, phone numbers, access, rights, and the message—over and over—that the system set up to take care of children’s needs should either do so or be held accountable.

“She’s very effective in reaching parents who, up to this point, have not been involved in advocates’ efforts,” says Tammy Seltzer, staff attorney for the Bazelon Center of Mental Health Law and a former co-chair of the Special Education Coalition, a local group formed a few years ago to bring together several struggling special education groups.

“She’s a potluck kind of lady,” adds Larry Gray. “You all bring a dish, and ‘Let’s sit down and talk.’ I wouldn’t say it’s a college seminar. She’s training people on the basics of what needs to be done, and she’s doing it in a social way so everyone feels comfortable.”

Considering the track record of special education in the District, ShemaYah and her parent students might have an easier time of it if they tried to fix something a little more solvable—like, say, racism, or global warming, or that old chicken-egg debate.

But special education? That’s been screwed up for so long that most people can’t remember it any other way. The division is notorious for abysmal record-keeping and a consistent backlog of requests for student evaluations and placements, despite federal and local laws that require a quick turnaround. DCPS lacks adequate programs to meet the needs of many special education students, so every year school officials have to send hundreds of kids off to private institutions—and then find the money to pay for it all.

It’s tough to know where to start when measuring dysfunction in this particular corner of public education. Take transportation, for instance, a relatively simple and straightforward responsibility: It’s a mess. The contracted buses for special education are expensive and unreliable, leaving kids stranded at home or school or sitting for hours in broken-down heaps. This year, DCPS Superintendent Arlene Ackerman fired the head of transportation and called for a massive restructuring of the department. Complaints about transportation persisted into November, when a D.C. Council oversight hearing uncovered the fact that drivers with Laidlaw Transit Inc., which holds the $20 million transportation contract for special education students, had been charged with serious criminal offenses, including child abuse and drug possession.

It’s not as if the system hasn’t tried to spend its way to functionality. Last year, for example, DCPS spent 30 percent of its $575 million budget teaching the 10 percent of its students in special education—and not teaching them all that well. DCPS spokesperson Devonya Smith says that budget figures aren’t finalized for this school year, but that special education could again account for as much as a third of the roughly $600 million budget.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s the worst [special ed] system in the country,” says Seltzer.

You don’t need to tell that to area parents. Some have managed to get their kids into good schools outside DCPS that are helping the kids achieve everything they’re capable of, but many others have kids who inhabit the substantial cracks in the system. Over the years, many frustrated parents have banded together and formed support and advocacy groups, like ShemaYah’s. Others, especially recently, have gone straight to the courts.

In 1995, for example, parents with kids in special education filed a lawsuit, called Petties vs. District of Columbia, which alleged that DCPS had long botched student evaluations and transportation. Lawyers are still haggling over that case. And there are others. This past summer, attorneys received preliminary approval on a settlement on two parent-plaintiff suits filed in 1997. The Blackman and Jones cases were combined because they both suggested that school officials were sitting on a backlog of complaints and requests for student evaluations and placements. By this summer, more than 700 hearings for evaluations had not been held within the 35-day period required by law, and school officials had failed to act on decisions about 400 complaints, according to a Washington Post article. According to the settlement, DCPS officials must send regular reports to the court on their progress on clearing up old cases. The latest report shows significant progress, says Seltzer, who was one of the co-counsels representing parents.

The latest numbers signal some cause for hope about special education, but many advocates point out that the progress wasn’t a matter of the system’s self-improvement.

“The changes are coming from the [lawsuits] which [were] brought about by parents,” says the D.C. Down Syndrome Association’s Llewellyn. “It’s not the school system saying, ‘We need to change things,’ or voluntarily coming forth to address or redress.” (Like ShemaYah, Llewellyn is a special education parent activist. Or at least she was. This fall, after years of struggling with the system, she decided to move her family out of the District so that her daughter, who has Down syndrome, could attend Maryland schools.)

“Special education in D.C. is like quicksand,” says ShemaYah. “If you don’t have someone to guide you, then your child falls in the quicksand, and then it may be too late.”

Not all the news from within the system is bad. The hiring this spring of Gay, a well-respected former principal at Janney Elementary School, signaled that DCPS was willing to draft the kind of strong, proven management skills that the department needs.

But she’s got a huge job on her hands, as even she will tell you. “There really wasn’t a cohesive and consistent approach to how problems would be addressed and resolved,” says Gay. “When there’s a void in leadership, something always fills that void. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, what filled that void didn’t help provide leadership, but simply [served as a] kind of Band-Aid…. There was no look at how to get ourselves out of it in the long term.

“[When I started], it was like walking into something and realizing that every single area needed instant attention,” she says.

Gay’s arrival presents a fresh opportunity for parent advocacy. She plans to shift much of the control of special education programs to individual schools—which means that parents should have the chance to become more involved with school-based programs.

With a renewed commitment to special education, and under pressure from the recent lawsuits, DCPS has finally turned to the backlog of requests for student evaluations. And instead of just straightening out the backlog, its new round of testing has found even more students who qualify for special education services in the District. Gay puts the count now at 10,127; that’s about 14 percent (or 1 in 7) of a 71,000 DCPS student population. (That number is currently under audit.) They are fast becoming the tail that is capable of crippling the entire dog.

But even as the number of special education students grows, there is no single constituency. Students’ abilities vary widely, and their parents grapple with understanding and then accommodating their children’s needs. Most parents coming into a system that is so overwhelmingly dysfunctional try to negotiate the pitfalls and get out as quickly as they can. In the past, one of the most common responses to the District’s inability to deal with special-needs kids was to demand that the District pay to have them educated elsewhere. If the demands weren’t met, parents sued and usually won, because the District lacked the capacity to educate kids with disparate needs. About 20 percent of special ed kids—most with highly motivated, active parents—went to private institutions. The system thus provided a disincentive to stay and fight for better capacity within D.C.

“I know of people who have moved back into D.C. because they could go to court and put their kids in private schools,” says Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, a parent advocacy group.

“I think that might be the top 10 to 15 percent who know enough and know how to negotiate the system,” adds DCPS parent and school activist Susan Gushue. “And those might be the parents who would advocate for change if they didn’t have that way out.”

Attorney Goodman, who represents parents in the Petties case, says that the critical mass necessary for change has never developed among parents of special ed kids. “Really, it’s been very clear that there hasn’t been that kind of unified group, or any parents movement, in a long time,” she says. “Instead, what we’ve had is a lot of people engaging in individual litigation and obtaining programs they need for their kids.”

The federal Department of Education has funded a variety of efforts to give parents a voice in the past few years, but they have mostly fizzled. This year, Education officials awarded a grant to Advocates for Justice and Education, a nonprofit support group headed by educators and attorneys. Bethann West, executive director of the group, which runs the Parent Training and Information Center, says the center consults with 200 families a month. But some parents and advocates say the center is still getting started and lacks an informed parent viewpoint.

Access to the courts—historically the only source of real leverage for parents—may be closing up. Last year, as part of the District’s appropriations bill, Ackerman requested a controversial provision to cap the amount of money DCPS would pay attorneys who argue on behalf of parents. In the past, DCPS covered all legal costs related to cases filed against the Division of Special Education, provided the parents won. Ackerman made a similar request in this year’s budget bill, which has been approved by both Congress and the president. The cap will limit the amount DCPS pays to $60 an hour—a cap that many attorneys and advocates say will prevent some parents from acquiring legal representation.

But the closing of the courthouse door could spur efforts to make the system right itself. If parents can’t escape, they’ll have to stay and fight. “The irony…is that [the cap] is eventually going to have the effect of getting parents to rise up again,” says Goodman. “They’re going to have to get together….That’s going to require people to lobby together more.”

That’s where Sister ShemaYah’s second crusade might come in handy. “I think her current efforts to get involved are critical,” says Thomas Lee McKeithan II. McKeithan is blind, and a former student of DCPS. He’s now chair of the State Advisory Panel on Special Education for the District of Columbia. “If it hadn’t been for my parents’ pushing the system to do what it’s required to do by law, I wouldn’t have made it through successfully.”

Once parents figure out they are going to have to force the system to heal, to work with the leadership DCPS has drafted, ShemaYah will be there waiting with her fistful of experience, know-how, and refusal to settle out.

“That seems like a simple thing until you talk to people who are really confused about how you do it—how you be an advocate and how you find the strength to do it, by feeling that you’re not out there by yourself,” says school board member Gail Dixon. “And that’s really what she does.”

If you didn’t know what ShemaYah had already accomplished, it would be easy to write her off as a flake, a more articulate and functional version of the crazies and mutterers who come to Washington to change the world. There’s that name, which she says came to her religious mentor in a sort of vision; the costume, which she conjured; and her religion, which she more or less spun out of many spiritual strands. But rather than marginalizing her, ShemaYah says her spiritual path has enabled everything else.

She certainly has done some crazy things. She returned to a job at the post office in 1988, but quit again in 1995, leaving behind a place people never vacate unless they have to. ShemaYah will tell you that the main headquarters in D.C., where she was last employed as a maintenance worker, was nothing more than a “modern-day plantation.” In an exit interview form, she said she was leaving to pursue a “part-time ministry.”

She now works part-time at Costco in Beltsville. She says she may leave D.C. in the next few years to help one of the Messianic Hebrew congregations she’s been studying with. In the meantime, she’s really already performing a mission of sorts: “I believe that most of my journey now is a spiritual journey.”

Her version of missionary work is to continue to fight for a system she and her son graduated from. She sees her more recent group as something of an offspring that she must guide. “I know if I don’t do it, the child is going to go astray,” she says. “I think this child could be better and stronger because I know more now.”

There is no problem that a parent can bring her that she hasn’t seen a version of before.

“She’s very practical and spiritual about her work,” says Rice-Thurston. “[She has] that sense of your pain—that ‘I know how frustrated you are and how almost frightening this is for you, because you have this child and you think that there’s this mess that you can’t cope with.’”

ShemaYah doesn’t mind telling parents that they can cope. Again.

“Now, it’s like a grandmother and her grandchild. She’s not going to leave her grandchild with just anyone,” ShemaYah says. “I feel like these are my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I can’t walk away from this, because it has become even more personal than before.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.