Remembering David Riley: 40 Years of Improving Outcomes for Students with Disabilities

 EDC honors the memory of Senior Advisor David Riley (at left) who passed away on May 2, 2016. Twenty-two years ago, David founded EDC's Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative. He was a national leader, a valued colleague, and a true champion for students with disabilities, students who are English learners, and students who are members of underrepresented groups. Over his 40-year career in the field, David worked tirelessly to close opportunity gaps and ensure all students receive an excellent education. His dedication to equity lives on today in the work of the Collaborative's over 100 member school districts nationwide that are taking action to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. This blog post includes excerpts from a profile of David by Kimberly Elliott that appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Collaborative's Urban Perspectives newsletter.

When asked which of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative’s accomplishments made him the most proud, David Riley pointed to the connections with colleagues—learning together, sharing challenges, exchanging strategies—that form the living bedrock of the Collaborative. In his leadership of the Collaborative, he witnessed the powerful role that fostering these connections can play in advancing urban special education leaders’ efforts to improve systems, services, and supports for diverse learners:

“I worked in urban school districts, and historically the role of special education administrator was isolated and isolating, much like the educational experience of students with disabilities. These leaders had few professional growth opportunities and, most often, no colleagues in similar roles. In founding the Collaborative, I wanted to connect them, help them tap into their collective strengths and knowledge, and share new research with them on evidence-based practices to improve outcomes for students. In 1994, we had 12 members at our first national meeting, and it has been so gratifying to see the Collaborative grow from that small, yet dedicated, group to over 100 members today. Even beyond the structure of the Collaborative meetings, members reach out to their colleagues nationwide to deeply explore and then carry out new strategies to better serve diverse learners. That’s what we set out to do, I’m seeing it have an impact on systems and students, and that’s why I got into this business.”

When colleagues discuss David and his contributions to the field, the same words pop up: “Respected, trusted, revolutionary, astute, compassionate, caring, indomitable, insightful, and invaluable.” They point to his ability to keep people’s eyes focused on the well-being of students amidst a plethora of red tape, pressing reforms, and competing demands. Above all, they talk about his vision, his determination, and his long history of “walking the talk”—standing up for what he believes in, and inspiring and moving others to do the same.

Joanne Brady, Former EDC Senior Vice President and Former Director of the Learning and Teaching Division, called David a true visionary and pioneer and praised his foresight in founding the Collaborative:

“Long before people talked about communities of practice, David was sustaining a strong, vibrant one in the Collaborative. Decades ago, he saw the wisdom of bringing people together who share similar challenges and don’t have peers in their own ecosystems. He knew how beneficial it would be for urban special education leaders to engage in rich, lively professional conversations, and he understood the potential impacts for their students. He  achieved this with the Collaborative, and the work that he has done in special education has strengthened all of education. EDC and the field owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Susan Rees, Educational Consultant and Former Executive Director of the ACCEPT Education Collaborative, reflected on the transformative influence of David’s staunch advocacy for inclusive classrooms on the field and her life:

“David has greatly influenced generations of special education teachers and administrators across the country. As a Director of Special Education in the late 1980s, we had a request from parents who wanted their teenager with severe and profound disabilities to be totally included in high school general education classrooms. At that time, there were no educational models in Massachusetts for this type of approach and teachers were afraid of having this student in their classrooms. I was inclined to reject the parents’ request, and that would have resulted in a costly legal battle. When I called David to ask his advice, he responded: “Why would you want to spend time, energy, and money to keep the student out? Why not just spend the time, energy and money to figure out how to make it work?” Following David’s advice, we worked with consultants to create a viable educational program for this student that prompted other Massachusetts school districts to do the same. David’s caring, his deeply held beliefs, and his fervent advocacy for students with disabilities and their parents has greatly influenced me—and countless others—to be a cheerleader for inclusion and that is one of his most powerful legacies.” 

Kay Seale, Collaborative Advisory Board Member and Manager of Special Education and Intervention Services for the Worcester Public Schools, noted that David was a mentor to her throughout her career and inspired her with his sense of purpose, compassion, sharp intellect, and dedication to enhancing urban education:

“A quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. sums up David’s contributions and symbolizes his leadership and commitment: ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of a true education.’ David’s work at the national, state, and local levels has provided opportunities for educators to think critically, always with high standards of excellence. His tenacity and courage have kept us grounded in our work, and through his leadership of the Mass Urban Project and the Collaborative, he has personally touched the lives of many as he has challenged us to think critically and be compassionate in our sense of purpose. At the end of the day, David reminds us that our students come first and must be at the core of all that we do! I was thinking about shifting gears and accepting a position in a suburban district, and I shared my plans with David. His reaction was: “Are you crazy? Urban education needs you—you can’t leave!” After 27 years in the field of urban education, I still love the work that I do. I have been blessed to work in the three largest school districts in Massachusetts, and the Mass Urban Project and the Collaborative have supported my work every step of the way.”

Before he passed away on May 6, 2016, David said, “I feel really good about where the Collaborative is today. We are still one of the few organizations that focus on the leadership of special education programs in urban areas, and it remains crucial to support these key leaders. Our members’ positive energy, commitment, and willingness to explore and apply evidence-based approaches is outstanding.  When our members engage in learning about contemporary research on effectively serving diverse learners—what really works—and share their experiences, they incubate and implement strategies that significantly benefit their students. It is my hope that the Collaborative will continue to find new ways to impact the lives of more and more students."


Tuesday, May 3, 2016 - 12:30pm