Ciolfi Plans to Use Powell Fellowship to Help Students Get Back on the Diploma Track

November 25, 2003
Ciolfi will continue to explore her interest in education issues with the Legal Aid Justice Center's JustChildren Program.

Alumna Angela Ciolfi '03, currently a law clerk to Judge Reginald C. Lindsay of the District of Massachusetts, was recently awarded the Powell Fellowship, an honor that provides a $35,000 award for a graduate or clerk entering a public service career. Created in honor of the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a Richmond native, the Powell Fellowship is designed to improve the delivery of legal services to the poor. First awarded in 2002, it provides a fellow's salary for one year with the expectation that it will be renewed for a second year.

"The Powell Fellowship is a wonderful opportunity for our students who want to provide legal services to indigent clients," said Public Service Center Director Kimberly Emery. "It is a very generous fellowship and it has the distinct advantage of being limited to Virginia students."

Ciolfi, a Warrenton, Va., native, plans to return to Charlottesville to work for the Legal Aid Justice Center 's JustChildren Program, where she worked as a clinical student and later as a volunteer while at the Law School. She coordinated with JustChildren attorneys to formulate her new job, which will focus on helping students who have been diverted from the standard diploma track into alternative education or GED programs to improve the school's overall performance ratings.

"I also want to alert the public to the systemic problem with how we hold students accountable," she said. "I think I'd like to make that more of a public issue."

Attorneys at JustChildren saw the recent trend forming, Ciolfi said, but lacked a comprehensive or targeted strategy to help children adversely affected by new diploma sanctions. Advocacy groups have been documenting similar trends in other states that have adopted high-stakes testing and have responded to the problem by representing so-called "push-outs" — kids who are kicked out, drop out, or who are transferred to inferior programs.

These students turn up in a variety of places when their educational needs aren't being met, including in GED programs, the juvenile justice system, truancy proceedings, alternative public school programs, foster care, and even the street. Ciolfi said she intends to represent such children to ensure their educational rights are being protected and to get them back on track to earning a standard diploma. Ciolfi will primarily focus on Charlottesville and surrounding counties, but doesn't rule out expanding her efforts to Petersburg or Richmond, where other JustChildren offices are located. She expects to find clients from the existing referral network, including parents, the public defender's office, social workers, and mental health workers, but "I'd like to do some outreach.

"I think part of my goal is to make parents aware and students aware of their educational rights." She said schools have an affirmative duty to let kids know they can receive educational services until age 20.

Ciolfi also wants to issue reports on her findings, although using specific statistics may be difficult because of poor state reporting of such information. She said states in general underestimate dropout rates and overestimate graduation rates, and even count GED students as graduates rather than as dropouts or in a separate category. She said one study estimates that Virginia 's graduation rate could be as much as 5 percent lower than the official state statistic.

While Virginia began implementing curriculum standards and testing in the mid-1990s, the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act increases pressure on schools by eventually imposing sanctions on under-performing schools. The Act is controversial, even among educators who want strong public schools, because it labels schools "failing" based on standardized test performance. "But on the other hand [it] makes educating students in those schools a priority," Ciolfi said. The Act also provides parents with information about schools and teachers, and avenues to transfer students into better-performing schools.

Ciolfi said recent Virginia data suggests that the single best predictor of school performance is the percentage of low-income students who attend the school. "That shows that the state needs to make these schools a priority," and devote adequate resources to them so all children have the opportunity to succeed. She added that it's problematic to hold kids accountable for under-performing schools before holding schools responsible. In her proposal, Ciolfi noted that schools that fail to meet state standards will not lose their accreditation until 2007; yet starting with this year's graduating class, students who do not pass six standardized tests will be unable to earn a diploma.

During the summer of 2001, Ciolfi worked as a research assistant for law professor Jim Ryan, an expert on law and educational opportunity. "It is hard for me to imagine any student more qualified for or deserving of this fellowship," he said. "I have counseled and come to know a number of impressive students interested in public service. But none comes close to Angela in terms of her commitment and dedication."

Ciolfi is no stranger to honors. As a second-year law student, she received the Linda Fairstein Public Service Fellowship, awarded to students who have demonstrated commitment to public service and promise in that field. At graduation, she received awards honoring her general character and her trial advocacy skills. In 2003 she won the Virginia State Bar's Oliver White Hill Law Student Pro Bono Award for her service in helping meet the legal needs of low-income children and families (more).

"I am delighted that such a star public-service alum is coming back to Charlottesville," Emery said. "I hope to have her speak to our students and supervise pro bono volunteers when she is back with us next fall."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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