The difference an advocate makes in schools

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Posted: 10/20/2022 4:35:18 PM

As a former teacher, I remember my annual recitation about how we (parents, students, teachers, and school administrators) needed to work together to make this school year a great one. I’m sure many others—students and parents—remember hearing that same message. It is a message that many have received, but which many do not see put into practice.

I went to law school specifically to study education law because I was troubled by the dysfunctional systems I encountered while teaching special education. As a teacher, I discovered that schools were in their golden age where the walls were brightly colored and the rooms filled with fun songs and projects, but underneath the foundations were rotten and decaying. . The fact remains that children are taught to pass tests and not to learn. Parents’ concerns for their children are ignored unless they affect the learning environment. Even when concerns are resolved, too many schools only put band-aids in place without ever addressing the fundamental underlying issues.

Now, when I enter a school in the role of a lawyer, the change in attitude that I observe is palpable. As a result, the greatest effort is made to ensure that meetings involving my clients run smoothly and that everyone works together. Families not only receive their procedural rights and safeguards, but the school ensures that the documents are in the family’s native language and reviews them carefully to ensure everyone is on the same page. Teachers and staff are suddenly available and have data and examples to present. Problems that have been bubbling for years are suddenly solved in a single conversation. Often, something as simple as a school really listening to a parent describe a child’s needs instead of just talking about that parent can be a huge contributing factor to a successful school year. Many families I work with are amazed at how easy and collaborative a school reunion can be when everyone is working towards the common goal of helping the student succeed.

As much as I love my job, I remain aware that a lawyer should not come to the school to ensure that it provides adequate educational services to students. Sadly, the field of education remains one of the most glaring examples of wealth inequality and disparity that families face in this country. By making education law a priority for our organization, Community Legal Aid leads efforts in our region to help families and students assert their education rights.

The main mission of community legal aid is to ensure equal justice for all, including, at the school level, for children as young as three years old, and there is always more work to be done. Every time I leave a successful meeting or close a case with a good outcome for a child, I think of the hundreds of other families who do not receive the help and support offered by Community Legal Aid. Where children live and the school they attend can shape their entire future. This is especially true if a family does not receive the proper tools and support a child needs to succeed in school. To that end, if you or someone you know is experiencing barriers to education, contact our Community Legal Aid Education Team.

Community Legal Aid provides free civil legal services to low-income and elderly residents of five western and central Massachusetts counties (Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester), and maintains full-time offices in Northampton, as well as offices in Worcester, Fitchburg, Springfield and Pittsfield. CLA works to ensure fairness for everyone in the justice system, protecting homes, livelihoods, health and families. Area residents who wish to seek help should visit the Community Legal Aid website, www.communitylegal.org/gethelpor call 1-855-252-5342.

Jaz Williams is an education staff attorney at the Worcester Office of Community Legal Aid. Prior to attending law school, Ms. Williams taught special education from grades 1 to 8 for five years. Ms. Williams can be reached at (508) 425-2789 or [email protected]

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