Ombuds … what? Director works to help kids

Catching up with Adie Simmons, ’88, Founding Director, Washington State Office of the Education Ombudsman.

“The name ombudsman is a little difficult to pronounce let alone understand. I’ve been called Mr. Awesome Man, an omnibus—I can’t tell you how many ways there are to pronounce it!”

The Washington State Office of the Education Ombudsman (OEO) is independent from the public-school system. It resolves problems and advocates for students’ needs from kindergarten to grade 12. It is the first such office in the United States.

“My parents are both educators. I grew up with a sense of priority in my life about education. At the UW, I majored in communications and I believe that I got the best education ever. It influences me always. I still have my notes and books and I still go back to what I learned because it was a good foundation.”

Simmons grew up in Lima, Peru, and taught preschool, English as a Second Language and Spanish in Costa Rica before coming to the United States in 1979. “What I experienced personally and professionally was a culture that valued education and the teaching profession. That doesn’t seem to exist here in many ways. In other countries, education is paramount.”

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into (as OEO’s founding director). There was no other office like ours in the world, and educators were uneasy about the direction this new agency would take. Things have gone pretty well and we’re now well respected and enjoy the cooperation of all school districts. It was pretty lonely in the beginning.”

“I was thrilled. It was a great opportunity to really help kids, their families and educators. But it was a new profession. Nobody ever said they wanted to grow up to be an education ombudsman.”

“There can be antagonistic relationships between parents and educators. It’s unbelievable to me. When I see the larger picture and examples of how children thrive when there is a good partnership, it’s amazing that’s not necessarily the norm. We need to work to change the paradigms of how schools view parents and how parents view schools.”

More than 3,000 complaints have been resolved by OEO since 2007 and Simmons estimates that 92 percent were successfully resolved. “We received an e-mail from a student who was considering suicide because she was mercilessly bullied at school. They were the saddest words to hear from a 14-year-old. She’s now a changed person. Without OEO’s intervention, who knows what would have happened.”

“Bullying complaints have risen an average of 21 percent every year in the last three years. Two years ago, we raised the alarm to the state Legislature. Some of the work our office leads to improved legislation.”

Regularly working 10-hour days and always dealing with complaints is both challenging and rewarding. “This can be a hard job to come to every morning. You will hear bad news all the time. We have to remind ourselves that we’re here for the kids. We ring a bell, a little school bell, after every case we successfully resolve. Those days, we go home satisfied.”