Legal Aid Society of Cleveland Advocates for Education

Callahan Foundation award recipient Legal Aid Society of Cleveland removes barriers to education for vulnerable and low-income families.

When looking at the root causes of poverty, lack of education is both a cause and an effect. A direct correlation exists showing the longer a child spends in school, the less likely they are to be poor – and it’s the reason why legal advocacy ensuring children have access to good education is so important.

“Federal law actually requires that all children get a free, public education,” says Melanie Shakarian, Esq., director of development and communications at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

The civil, nonprofit law firm provides advocacy for vulnerable and low-income families, and their children who may not be receiving the appropriate public education required under federal law. The organization, established in 1905 and with 134 branches across the US, operates one of its largest branches in Cleveland.

Awarded $20,000 in Callahan Foundation’s 2016 Spring Funding Cycle, the Legal Aid Society’s “Access to Education” program has helped remove barriers to education for children through direct representation, community education and advocacy. In the past decade, education law has become a focused element of their practice, with two and a half full-time attorneys dedicated to the project.

“These are people who handle representing young children in school who are being denied services at their school,” says Shakarian. “It could be a child who has a disability who’s not provided an accommodation, maybe because they have a physical disability or mental health concern and they need an accommodation at their school. We could be representing a child who has been bullied and needs to be removed from their particular classroom or school because of the abuse they’re receiving. We’ll represent that child to make sure they get the services they’re entitled to in a more appropriate stetting. We represent a lot of kids who are on the autism spectrum, who need an IEP [Individualized Education Program], or some kind of other special help in school. We represent kids who are juveniles who may have been tagged as problem kids, but the underlying reason why they’re causing problems is because they have an undiagnosed learning disorder that’s causing them to act out.”

Last year, the Legal Aid Society helped 629 people through 185 education law cases. In addition to handling individual cases, LES attorneys are charged with doing community education and helping parents understand what their rights are and what services exist. LES identifies systemic issues that lie at the core of educational disadvantages, providing a larger impact for families and affecting longer-term change.

“That’s something we’re very proud of,” says Shakarian. “Because we’ve been able to empower a lot of parents who didn’t know their children had the right to education, and provide them with enough advice for them to advocate on their own.”

The Callahan Foundation is proud to be one of the initial funding sponsors of the “Access to Education” project.