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Posted July 7, 2010

Ciolfi Wins National Child Advocacy Award

Angela Ciolfi

Angela Ciolfi ’03 has received the American Bar Association’s National Child Advocacy Award from the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division.

Ciolfi, legal director of the Charlottesville Legal Aid Center’s JustChildren Program and an adjunct faculty member at the Law School, will be presented with the award in August at the ABA’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

"This award is such an honor," Ciolfi said. "I am grateful to the Legal Aid Justice Center and my talented colleagues at JustChildren for making it possible to carry out work that is so important for our young clients and for children throughout Virginia."

Ciolfi first began working for the Legal Aid Justice Center as a Powell Fellow, an award given to one Law School graduate each year to work in public service.

Ciolfi deflected the praise she has won to her colleagues at Legal Aid. “It’s hard work but it’s easy to do good work when you have the leadership of Andy Block and our small team of lawyers, firms, organizations and student volunteers.“ Block, a former winner of the award, held the legal director’s position prior to Ciolfi and is now assistant professor at the Law School.

“Angela is one of the most dedicated advocates with whom I have had the honor to work,” said Alex Gulotta, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “No one could be more deserving of this national award.”

Ciolfi said she often represents children who have no other advocate before school boards and government bureaucracies whose policies sometimes value test scores and graduation rates over the needs of individual children.

Among Ciolfi’s program’s successes are lobbying for the addition of graduation benchmarks each school must set for accreditation, fighting against budget cuts in the most impoverished school districts and co-authoring a juvenile law practice manual, Education Law and Advocacy.

The number of Virginia children living in poverty has increased nearly 30 percent since 2008. These children have access to “fewer services and fewer opportunities,” Ciolfi said. A Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee study committee found the biggest single predictor of a student’s performance on Virginia’s Standard of Learning test is economic status.

“Statistically, a middle-class student in a high-poverty school will do worse than a poor student in a middle-class school,” she said. “I think part of my goal is to make parents and students aware of their educational rights.”

Schools are legally obligated to let kids know they can receive educational services until age 20, according to Ciolfi.

In the past, Virginia schools were evaluated exclusively on the basis of students’ standardized test scores and authorities refused to make graduation rates a factor in accreditation. As a result, many schools “pushed 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. These low-performing students are often vulnerable and frequently drop out if their needs are neglected.

Disciplinary problems also contribute to dropout rates, but zero-tolerance 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.

“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?”

Ciolfi credits much of her success to the Law School’s growing emphasis on public service.

“The Law School is preparing students for public service better now than ever,” she said, citing the Program in Law and Public Service, fellowship opportunities, mentoring programs and the student groups that are forming alliances with Legal Aid.

“Giving students opportunities to represent clients in the clinical setting, to actually take on a case and own it and be responsible for it is the best way to prepare for life as a public interest lawyer. The Law School gave me that opportunity as a student.”

In 1990, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, in conjunction with the Center on Children and the Law, established the Child Advocacy Award to honor lawyers for distinguished service on behalf of children.

Reported by tim arnold