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Seattle Public Schools has hired California administrator Zakiyyah McWilliams to direct its special-education department, which has long lacked stable leadership and been plagued with complaints that it ill serves students.

McWilliams started her career as a special-education teacher and has worked as a principal in the Pasadena Unified School District, a school-improvement consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education and, since 2007, as a special-education administrator in the Compton Unified School District. In Compton, McWilliams recently finished a plan to reduce the overrepresentation of minority students in special-education programs.

McWilliams said Tuesday she’s been seeking a position in a school district that’s larger than Compton but facing the same challenges. In Compton, she said, she worked with parents to reduce the number of special-education lawsuits and made sure district administrators heard the voices of special-education teachers.

McWilliams said her son, who is now a college student, was believed to have attention-deficit disorder when he was younger. “So I know what it feels like to be a mother when you’re told your child has a disability,” she said.

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She said she’s been able to find a balance between advocating for families and for the school district.

McWilliams is scheduled to start her new job in Seattle in mid-May. District officials said she was one of six candidates vetted by a committee that included teachers, parents and administrators, with Superintendent José Banda making the final decision.

Hers is the second top leadership post the district has filled recently. Banda also announced that Michael Tolley, an internal candidate, would head the district’s teaching and learning department.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

On Twitter: @LShawST

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