Education Law Center of Pennsylvania


When you walk into the offices of the Education Law Center and turn down the hall to your right, you’ll see a wall covered in framed photographs. The frames don’t match. Many of the photos are printouts on standard 8.5 x 11 office paper. The pictures aren’t aligned neatly or in any discernable order. They all have one thing in common, though; they are all of staff members or the children and families that have been helped by ELC.

Today, as I write this column, I’m on the 6:40 a.m. train to Harrisburg to attend a preliminary injunction hearing for Derrick, a 9-year-old boy who is legally deaf and blind. Federal law says that Derrick’s local school district must place him in the least restrictive environment possible, but his school district shipped him off to a private school in Massachusetts, hundreds of miles from his family. His parents pulled him out of that school and demanded that the school district place Derrick in his local school. The school district replied that they would send him to Maryland. That’s when the hearings started. For nearly two years, administrative officers and the Pennsylvania Department of Education have told the school district that Derrick must be educated in his local school and have a specially trained helper who can communicate the material to him.

The school district stalled.

Finally, it looked liked progress might be made. The school district appeared to capitulate and hired a helper for Derrick. However, the helper wasn’t properly trained and the school district didn’t appear to have plans to train its staff appropriately. The result: deprived of sensory contact at school, Derrick began self-abusing, bruising himself and causing open wounds. His parents pulled him out of school and this morning they are seeking an injunction to force the district to hire a qualified helper for Derrick and/or to train its staff.

Students with disabilities, English-language learners, children unfairly kicked out of school for “discipline problems” and placed in alternative schools, and the families of all of these kids are ELC’s clients.

As the hodge-podge photo gallery at the entrance shows, ELC is not a cookie-cutter establishment. It’s one part lobbyist, one part civil rights litigator, and one part direct advocate for individuals and their families. I’ve participated in meetings in which the attorneys have debated the best representatives for a class action, listened as attorneys carefully guided parents through what they need to tell their local school when they go in to talk about their child’s education rights, heard testimony before the state board of education, and been on calls with education advocates from around the country.

The most rewarding part of my internship – besides the satisfaction of helping children – is that my work doesn’t go off into the ether. Attorneys give me substantive research to do, not fact checking or summarizing. My research and study having a practical application wasn’t something I experienced often in my 1L courses. I haven’t felt this engaged in my work since I taught kids in the classroom.

That’s not to say that ELC is all sunshine and dewdrops. We lose. Our successes in court and in the legislature are usually compromises rather than complete victories. The laws, even those that support children’s rights, never go as far as we would like. ELC struggles on all fronts. We’re always pushing for more child-friendly laws and policies. Like most non-profits, funding is tenuous and often tied to special projects. Much of the funding for the new attorneys comes from fellowships, which means they’ll be there for a year or two until the fellowship ends. Then, if ELC manages to find the funding, the attorney can stay. Otherwise, it’s time to find a new job.

Philadelphia has a bustling public interest scene. The Philadelphia Bar Association hosted weekly brown-bags throughout the summer. Community Legal Services ran a day-long bus tour of northern Philly to let the summer interns, who mostly live in the more gentrified Center or University City, meet the people for whom we advocate. We visited shelters, retirement homes, housing projects, and community gardens and farms. There was something unsettling about a bus full of yuppie 20-somethings unloading into a former needle park or an emergency shelter. The people who ran these operations were warm and friendly, but most also had an incongruous combination of resignation and suppressed energy, of pragmatism and hope.

As hard as losses are on the ELC staff, I try to remember how much tougher they are for the parents and the children we serve. The pictures on the wall remind us of who we are there to help, but at the end of the day, it’s Derrick’s parents who’ll take their son to school each day wondering if he’ll come home bruised.

I would be remiss if I don’t mention the generosity of the HLS Alumni Association of Philadelphia. Each summer, they give fellowships to Harvard students doing public interest work in the Philadelphia area. They allowed me to meet my funding cap for the summer and live rather better than I was expecting. I should also thank Alexa Shabecoff, who tipped me off to ELC and the Alumni Fellowship, and HLS graduate Deborah Gordon, who convinced me that ELC was where I should spend my summer. Any 1L who is considering working in the public interest needs to go talk with OPIA.

I’m not deluding myself that we all will become public advocates, but nowhere is it more feasible than at Harvard. The fancy suits and the 12-hour days will be there for us soon enough. I, however, was thrilled to work 9 to 5 in jeans and sandals doing a job that makes life better for children and their families.

By the way, I found out the first day of classes that Derrick and his family got their injunction for a qualified helper.

Erin Archerd ’08.

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