As I am wrapping up my time with Stand for Children Colorado to attend law school at University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law I count myself blessed to have had the opportunity to work with the incredible Stand team and especially the parents and families we serve. To that end, I wanted to share some of what is motivating this transition for me and it starts with a story from my time in the classroom ten years ago in Providence, Rhode Island
I asked Carlos to stay after class and copy a sentence from the whiteboard. I wasn’t that sort of teacher, but I had a theory. And as I watched Carlos, a chatterbox of a kid with a big goofy grin, write those letters, I knew I was right. Though Carlos was new to my class and this country, as a native Spanish speaker and ninth grader, most English letters should have been instantly recognizable. Instead, Carlos seemed to be drawing the letters. The straight line of the lowercase “b” took him four strokes. I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing, but I felt sure he had some sort of neurological processing challenge that would require special education services.
Carlos’s time was running out. The law said that we couldn’t designate students as needing special education services after they become sophomores and we were in the last few weeks of Carlos’s freshman year. I immediately made phone calls to doctors to try and squeeze him in to be evaluated. I called his mom and talked her through options. Together, we spent the next few weeks fighting every bureaucratic obstacle and during the last week of school we prevailed. Carlos was designated as a special education student. I sat in the back of his first Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting, taking exhausted solace that we had won—Carlos had won. His designation meant the force of the law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—would protect him and ensure he would be given the high-quality, equitable education he deserved.
And yet, I wasn’t entirely satisfied. Sure, the safety net of the law had caught Carlos, but what about my other students? Every day I watched brilliant kiddos—Araceli, Marcos, Marissa—not get what they needed. They were designated as English Learners and while other designations came with the force of the law, there were no laws to ensure that they spent a designated number of minutes practicing English or receiving targeted instruction aimed at language acquisition. How could the law be so invested in the success of Carlos and be indifferent to that of Araceli?
This discrepancy and others like it are largely why I left the classroom to become a community organizer. I knew that by bringing parents and teachers to the decision-making table in their school, their district, and their capitol, we could write better policies and laws that reflected the needs of the kids and families the system most often ignored. Together, we won major victories—moms who found their power testifying in front of the school board, the switch from punitive to restorative discipline practices in one of the largest school districts in the country, and access to free kindergarten for every child in Colorado.
In law school, I hope to explore the law and better understand why it sometimes shows its face with finality and other times it is outstandingly absent. In community organizing, we say it is important to “democratize the knowledge” to ensure that the power to affect change does not sit with just a few people. I hope to be able to democratize the knowledge of the complexities of the law in order to serve justice. I sometimes think of the law as an invisible framework intent on guiding us, the citizenry, down the path of justice—but there are holes that need to be patched. I want the law to consistently deliver critical protections for all kids—Carlos and Araceli. And in helping patch those holes, I hope to do my small part continuing fight for educational and racial justice.
I know the Stand team and the families we work with will continue to push for educational equity and I wish them every success in their efforts.