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Posted Aug. 10, 2006

Ciolfi Uses Fellowship to Fight for Children’s Education

CiofliIn the three years since her graduation, alumna Angela Ciolfi ’03, has both gone far and stayed very close to home. She still lives in Charlottesville and still spends most of her time thinking about school, but her thoughts now turn not to her upcoming papers and tests but to the inequities of education financing, the difficulties of evaluating school performance and the factors that prompt students to drop out without receiving a high school diploma.

In 2003, Ciolfi received the Powell Fellowship, a two-year award offering a $35,000 annual salary to a graduating Virginia student or judicial clerk who has demonstrated a strong commitment to public service. Over the past two years, she has used the fellowship to support her work on public education at the JustChildren Program in Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, where she had volunteered as a law student.

Ciolfi divides her time between advocating state-level reforms in public education and representing individual clients from Charlottesville and the surrounding counties. Clients come to her with a wide range of educational concerns, such as returning to school after a suspension or expulsion and accessing services for students with disabilities or limited knowledge of English.

“One of the things that is hardest about this job is trying to figure out how to spend your time,” Ciolfi said. “I think you can’t do the state-level work if you haven’t seen the faces of the individual kids, and you quickly become discouraged dealing with individual cases if you don’t see something happening on a larger scale.”          

One issue Ciolfi frequently grapples with on both local and state levels is the struggle to increase graduation rates. The dropout rates reported by Virginia high schools seem low, Ciolfi said, but that is because schools typically count only students who leave during their senior year. “The seeds of dropping out start long before high school,” she said. According to Ciolfi, most dropouts occur before the senior year of high school and reflect a number of long-term problems, including disciplinary infractions, boredom and a lack of basic reading skills. Studies show a particularly high dropout rate among students forced to repeat the ninth grade, she said.

Because Virginia evaluates its schools exclusively on the basis of students’ standardized test scores and refuses to make graduation rates a factor in accreditation, many schools “push out” their low-performing students, Ciolfi said. “One easy way to raise [a school’s] score is by focusing resources and money on the kids with the best chance of passing the tests and not encouraging those who don’t,” she said. According to Ciolfi, these low-performing students are often vulnerable to begin with and frequently drop out when they see their needs being neglected.

Disciplinary problems also contribute significantly to dropout rates, but zero-tolerance disciplinary policies resulting in suspension or expulsion only make matters worse, Ciolfi said. Many of her cases involve getting expelled or suspended students back into school. She advocates a shift in schools’ disciplinary policies away from expulsion and suspension and toward punishments such as weekend and after-school detention, which increase rather than decrease the time that at-risk students spend in school.

“Believe it or not, we’ve had clients younger than four who have been suspended from preschool,” Ciolfi said. “Why do we believe that less school rather than more is going to solve the problem?”

As the largest children’s legal advocacy organization in Virginia, JustChildren not only handles local cases but also gets calls from across the state requesting advice about children’s education, foster care, juvenile justice, and mental health. JustChildren has had some state-wide victories in education during Ciolfi’s time there. Andy Block, the legal director of JustChildren, said that Ciolfi’s work was critical in getting the state to increase funding for a program that helps at-risk preschoolers. “That’s a pretty big accomplishment for someone just two years out of law school,” Block said.     

Ciolfi, a Virginia native and 2000 graduate of William and Mary, said that her personal experience with Virginia schools has helped her identify with her clients. In addition, her mother’s career as a teacher gives her access to a second perspective on the education system.

A 2001 summer job researching school desegregation, school choice and education financing for law professor Jim Ryan sparked Ciolfi’s interest in education law. Then, during her second year of law school, Ciolfi took the Child Advocacy Clinic, during which she got hands-on experience with cases at the Legal Aid Justice Center. She continued to volunteer at the center during her third year, doing research on school funding.

Although Ciolfi left Virginia after graduation to clerk for Judge Reginald C. Lindsay of the District of Massachusetts, she returned to Charlottesville and to the Center after receiving the Powell Fellowship in November 2003. Since then, Ciolfi has also returned to the law school as a supervisor to students participating in law professor Richard Balnave’s Child Advocacy Clinic.  

Carolyn Clark, a staff attorney at JustChildren who specializes in cases involving the juvenile justice system, worked with Ciolfi last term as a supervisor for the clinic. Clark, who described Ciolfi as the JustChildren Program’s “education guru,” said that Ciolfi’s youth and her fresh memories of law school help make her an effective teacher for the students in the clinic.

“She’s really good at asking the tough questions of the students,” Clark said. “She’s just a terrific lawyer.”

Ciolfi plans to continue her work with JustChildren as a member of the legal staff once her fellowship expires this fall. According to Block, fellowships such as Ciolfi’s give organizations time to raise the money they need to hire new employees.

“I wouldn’t have been able to work here without the Powell Fellowship,” Ciolfi said. “It’s hard for nonprofits to invest in young, inexperienced lawyers.”

Ciolfi said she feels honored that she received an award named after the late Supreme Court Justice and Virginia native Lewis F. Powell, whom she described as a man thoroughly committed to education and public service. But she added that she strongly disagrees with at least one of Powell’s views: his insistence that there is no fundamental federal right to education and therefore no obligation for different states or counties to provide equitable resources and opportunities in all schools.

In 2003, Virginia had the nation’s third-largest funding gap in public education between poor and wealthy communities, according to Ciolfi.  Ciolfi credits such funding gaps with a tremendous impact on student achievement. According to her, recent research suggests that inequities in school funding are more influential than inequities in parental income in determining student success. “Statistically, a middle-class student in a high-poverty school will do worse than a poor student in a middle-class school,” she said.            
• Reported by Sarah Ingle

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This article is first in a series on what the Powell Fellows are doing now.