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Originally published Friday, April 6, 2012 at 5:39 PM

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The long-lasting benefits of an educational ombudsman

The Seattle School District did the right thing in creating the position of an ombudsman who can listen, facilitate and negotiate solutions — so that educators and families become partners in education, writes guest columnist Adie Simmons.

Special to The Times

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NO matter what the education issue is today, the contentious nature of our modern discourse has devolved into having winners and losers. Either you are for (insert educational issue) or you are against it. At some point we must all ask ourselves, "Do we have enough resources and money to keep feeding an education system that continues to foster polarizing dialogue, whereby opposing viewpoints/parties must have a 'winner' and 'loser'?"

The creation of a Seattle Public Schools ombudsman, I believe, is a step in the right direction. Years before the Seattle district invested in an ombudsman position, the state of Washington made an investment in a statewide Office of the Education Ombudsman, for a good reason.

Ombudsman offices are an efficient management and cost-savings tool. They serve the public interest by providing an alternative avenue to resolve disputes outside the legal system, and they provide quality control for the organization they serve and, most important, they work to ensure that educators and families become partners in education.

In ombudsman work, emphases are placed on relationship building, fair processes and not necessarily on "righting the wrong" of an educational issue or situation.

Mending broken relationships between families and school administrators is the bread and butter of education ombudsmen. Complainants contacting them have tried to resolve their problem by presenting their grievances to school and school district staff to no avail. They are upset, discouraged, deeply concerned and many times angry at school officials.

The ombudsman takes time to listen, identify issues, assess how the problem affects the student involved, research laws and policies, coach all parties, facilitate meetings and negotiate solutions. While many of these cases take long hours of work to come to a resolution, the outcome provides long-lasting benefits for the student and for all involved.

Dealing with complaints, grievances and disputes can be problematic and time-consuming for school administrators, but these are also prime opportunities for systemic improvement. A valid complaint, when closely examined, can alert everyone to procedural gaps, ineffective policies, untrained personnel and/or unsafe environments that directly impact students. Complaint data collected by the ombudsman office should lead school and district administrators to re-examine individual and institutional operations, how decisions impact the lives of students and whether processes are fair.

It is time that we stop with ideologies and focus on real and practical solutions to some of our most pressing educational issues. Ombudsmen can start the dialogue of a "third way" of building consensus as opposed to entrenchment. It is that third way that can help break the bifurcated world of educational rhetoric that is so prevalent today and help us refocus on the what matters most: our children.

Adie Simmons is director of the state Office of the Education Ombudsman, established by the Legislature in 2006. It is the only K-12 state-level education ombudsman office in the nation. The office resolves complaints regarding all school districts in Washington, promotes family engagement in education and makes recommendations for the improvement of the public education system.

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