Teaching can be a tough job, particularly in under-resourced schools. Working with ninth graders in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jenna Sheldon-Sherman ’11 met many students who had slipped through the cracks of the educational system. One student in particular got her attention: a girl who had been in a fight on campus and was expelled. “She made a mistake, a big one. But I didn’t think it was right that it should define her whole future,” says Sheldon-Sherman, who helped her former student prepare for her case before the district’s disciplinary hearing board. Sheldon-Sherman also spoke on the girl’s behalf. And the district agreed to give her a second chance.
“It was then that I knew I wanted to go to law school,” says Sheldon-Sherman, who notes that her former student did graduate from high school and is now training to become a nurse. “I saw how I could make a difference.”
Disciplinary problems, learning challenges, and physical limitations. Schools are a melting pot of kids with a range of abilities and requirements. But it’s expensive to accommodate special needs, and it’s time-consuming to work through disciplinary issues. Too often, budget constraints win out and a one-size-fits-all approach becomes the norm. Schools are also rife with rules and procedures and laws. Parents trying to improve their children’s education can get lost navigating through the multilayered bureaucracy. There to help is Stanford Law School’s Youth and Education Law Project (YELP).
With careful guidance and instruction from YELP Director William Koski and Carly Munson, the Bingham McCutchen Youth and Education Clinical Fellow, students work with disadvantaged youth and their communities (primarily in the Bay Area) to ensure that they have access to equal educational opportunities.
At the same time, YELP students are learning broad lawyering skills. They take the lead on cases—meeting with clients and expert consultants, writing briefs, participating in negotiations and formal mediations, and representing clients in hearings.
“In addition to developing first-rate lawyering skills such as client counseling, negotiation, and oral advocacy, students in the clinic are given the opportunity to take ownership of their cases and projects, reflect on their practice, and develop the critical quality of sound professional judgment,” says Koski (PhD ’03), Eric and Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education and professor (by courtesy) of education.
Now a full-time commitment that mirrors a legal practice, the clinic kicks off with a boot camp in client representation skills and moves very quickly into actual representation, with a heavy emphasis on writing and researching.
“We had a client call on the very first day of clinic,” says Alexander Tischenko ’12, who plans to split his time this summer between Paul, Weiss in New York and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in San Antonio. “But the preparation was terrific. Bill is great at letting us figure out what needs to be done, getting us to put together a plan, and then ripping it apart—but in a good way. The level of feedback was incredible. The faculty to student ratio was too.”
School funding is at the root of many of the individual challenges the clinic’s clients encounter. And funding is determined by policy. In addition to representing clients, the clinic also explores policy questions—most recently as co-counsel with Bingham McCutchen representing individual plaintiffs, including the named plaintiff in Robles-Wong, et al. v State of California. A historic lawsuit, it asks that the current education finance system in California be declared unconstitutional and that the state be required to establish a school finance system that provides students with an equal opportunity to meet the academic goals set by the California Legislature.
“It’s a well-known fact that California’s education finance system is dysfunctional,” says Koski. “It was cobbled together through years and years of legislative action, and legislative inaction, and ballot measures.”
California has more pupils in its school system than any other state, yet it spends less per child annually (ranking 47th nationally) and its teachers have more students in their classrooms (50th nationally).
“I grew up in California and was lucky enough to go to some of the best public schools in the state,” says Tischenko. “So having the opportunity to work on a case that is attempting to ensure that all of the kids here have the same opportunities that I had is personally rewarding.”
While the case winds its way through the courts, Tischenko plans to take the advanced clinic in the fall to continue working on the Robles-Wong case. “I wanted my clinic experience to include client interaction and work on longer impact litigation. I definitely got that and much more,” says Tischenko.
Koski is passionate about the work that YELP does, and his students see it. For him, it’s personal. His mother has been a special education teacher in public schools for 43 years—and counting. “She thinks about retiring, but hasn’t,” says Koski, who rode to school with the special-ed kids when he was himself a student. “The big lesson for me was that they are just kids and that they have needs that we should try our best to meet.”
A lawyer and an education specialist, Koski combines expertise in both areas in his clinical instruction. Working with children and schools has unique challenges. In addition to administrative bureaucracy, there are nuanced client needs. Often, a child comes to the clinic with a history of negative encounters with school administrators. These are personal issues, and parents can be protective of their children, as well as exhausted after having tried to solve issues on their own.
“Schools are often overwhelmed, and children who don’t learn at the same pace or in the same manner as the majority or who don’t interact similarly to their peers can fall behind or get into trouble,” says Sheldon-Sherman, who just finished a study with Professor Joan Petersilia looking at rates of learning disabilities in the population of juvenile detention facilities. Not surprisingly, she says, the numbers are very high.
And through children we often see the strains of life’s hardships.
“One of my cases was really heart wrenching,” says Tischenko. “The family was going through bankruptcy and foreclosure and had to move—so their son had to move schools. He had a history of emotional and functional issues and had threatened suicide. The family’s financial crisis upset his precarious state.” Tischenko and his clinic partner waded through what he describes as “tricky” state mandates and funding streams, putting in weeks of research, to make the case for their client’s placement in an appropriate school.
“I saw the impact the recession was having on the family and the school,” he says. “School budgets have been cut, child services have been cut, and the family’s finances have been devastated.”
And unlike many legal cases that come to an end, YELP clients will likely have ongoing needs to negotiate with their school districts. “We saw our role as not just representing clients but also building their advocacy skills so that they could go into meetings and represent themselves both while we were there and after we were gone,” says Sheldon-Sherman.
Preparing for graduation and a federal district court clerkship in Missouri, Sheldon-Sherman feels ready for her career in law—whether working in tax law at a firm as she did last summer, or representing a child at school in the clinic. “It was the highlight of law school,” she says. “I can’t imagine going into practice without the skills I learned during my YELP time.” SL