My first day at the Maryland Disability Law Center with managing attorney Leslie Margolis began at 8:30 am. After meeting Leslie, we drove to the Nancy Grasmick State Department of Education for a meeting on a 28-year lawsuit with the state assistant superintendent for education, an attorney from the state attorney general’s office, the settlement agreement liaison, and other staff from the Maryland Department of Education and the MDLC. This was a fascinating meeting focused on monitoring the Baltimore County Public Schools’. It was amazing to see the commitment of all involved to improving special education in the state, persevering through a decades-long lawsuit. Following this meeting, we headed back to the MDLC for a lunch meeting with Maryland Special Education Lawyers (MDSEL). This is a group of special education lawyers who meet every two months to discuss advocacy issues in the field of special education based on their caseloads, current legislation being considered, and the actions of major players in the field. I was most struck by this unification of the public and private sectors in the pursuit of progress on behalf of children with disabilities, with ground-level experiences and faces to influence systemic policy to make it as effective as possible. Finally, the last meeting was again at the MDLC, this time with the Education Advocacy Coalition. This group of major players in special education advocacy brainstormed about how to use its considerable weight and experience collectively and in coordination to make a difference. At the end of the day, once this meeting was over, Leslie and I were able to talk about all kinds of things—Princeton, majors, careers, legislation, lawyers, advocacy. On my first day of this Princeternship, I entered a whole new and exciting world of people truly advocating on behalf of children with disabilities.
My second day began at 6:30 am at Leslie’s house. We drove to a hotel just outside of Baltimore for a 7:30-3:30 meeting. It was quite the opportunity to learn about the successful management of a nonprofit. This meeting was with the National Board of the Epilepsy Foundation. The in-depth discussions of long-term vision, goals, and the implementation of these in day-to-day operations provided a remarkable chance to learn extremely valuable lessons about nonprofit impact and saliency in the future. In particular, I appreciated learning from so many board members’ extensive experience, insight, and wisdom. I appreciated the structure of the meeting as well—outlining the plan for the day, setting the tone, articulating different visions and reconciling them, and working out strategies for implementation. All in all, it was an extremely edifying day.
The day began with a morning meeting about the modified and alternative versions of Maryland’s state-wide testing, including discussion of the manual regarding the administration of these tests. Following this, Leslie and I headed back to the MDLC. Upon our arrival, Leslie introduced me to Tacha Marshall, the person in charge of special education intake for the MDLC. Her role is to take calls from parents who are having a problem with the special education of their child and obtain the facts and details of the case. At this point, she informs the parents of any relevant knowledge and determines whether the case will be passed on to the MDLC attorneys or pro-bono private attorneys, or perhaps not taken on at all. Tacha allowed me to sit in with her as she took a call from a family whose daughter was not receiving the special education services required by the law. It was a remarkable insight into the struggles of these families and their children. Finally, Leslie and her colleague Bob Berlow kindly took me to lunch, and we were able to discuss some of the developments of the day.
All in all, I learned about all the different players involved in the legal realm of special education and advocacy and each of their roles. In addition, it became clear just how necessary advocacy is on these issues and the truly awful circumstances that many students often suffer as a result of being in special education. This experience made me seriously consider law school, but also, it opened my eyes to many other possible ways to make a difference in a population in need, from legislative advocacy to political office to managing a foundation that offers services to those in need. This Princeternship is a fascinating insight into public sector and private sector attorneys, broad advocacy and individual cases, the politics of legislation, and the truly systemic failures present and change necessary in the area of special education.