Contributed by the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law

Davida Finger, director of the Education Project, with students (photo courtesy of Loyola University New Orleans)

Davida Finger, director of the Education Project, with students (photo courtesy of Loyola University New Orleans)

Christopher* is a third-grade student in the New Orleans Public School system, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and has experienced significant trauma. He is struggling in school both academically and behaviorally. Christopher’s mom has been trying for years to get him the services and supports he needs in school. She has asked school administrators to have Christopher evaluated for special education services and provided letters of support from his doctors, but has gotten no response. Meanwhile, Christopher continues to struggle and the school responds to his behavioral problems by suspending him or calling his mom to pick him up early. The result is that Christopher has fallen further and further behind, academically.

Christopher’s challenges are by no means unique. The New Orleans school system has long been one of the lowest-performing school districts in the nation, and the city’s most vulnerable children face even higher barriers to receiving a high-quality education. Black students are suspended at three times the rate of white students. Students with disabilities face serious obstacles enrolling in school and receiving the special services that they are entitled to under federal law.

The consequences are dire. Some researchers estimate that approximately 15 percent of New Orleans youth are out of school and out of work, furthering the cycle of poverty in the community.

Loyola University New Orleans College of Law is responding to these challenges through the Education Project, launched in 2018. “Children of color, children with disabilities, and children from low-income families are the least likely to get the services they need to succeed and are disproportionately disciplined and pushed out of school,” says Davida Finger, Clinic Professor and Director of the Project. “The mission of the Education Project is to protect the rights of these students, break these harmful cycles, and ensure that all New Orleans students have equal access to a quality education.”

Through the Education Project, Loyola law students, working under the supervision of experienced clinical faculty, provide free legal representation to students who are facing suspensions and expulsions, as well as students with disabilities who require special educational services in order to succeed in school. Sara Godchaux, a 2012 Loyola Law alum who has joined the Education Project as a Staff Attorney, explains, “Legal assistance for students and parents is critical for breaking the cycle of school push-out and ensuring that all students have access to equitable educational opportunities. We know that students facing school push-out or other issues related to access for special education services have a much better chance of staying in school and succeeding if they have a strong advocate helping them.”

The Education Project is the latest innovation of Loyola’s Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice, which has been ranked 23rd in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. The Loyola Law Clinic serves low-income people in many different areas, including immigration, juvenile law, criminal defense, family law, housing and employment. The Education Project, which is the first program of its kind in the South, allows the clinic to provide an even greater range of legal services in the local community, and prepares a new generation of attorneys to respond to these needs of New Orleanians.

“As a Jesuit school, we are deeply embedded in our community,” explains Dean Madeleine Landrieu. “Those connections allow us to identify vulnerable and under-served populations and create new programs, like the Education Project, to fill the gaps. Of course, our ultimate goals are both to inspire within our students a desire to serve and to give them the tools to do so.”

Through the Education Project, third-year law students at Loyola, under the supervision of clinic attorneys and professors, are working with Christopher and his mom to get him the help he needs to be successful academically, and to hold his school accountable to its legal obligations. Clinic students have retrieved and reviewed his educational disciplinary records and represented him at school hearings and meetings. By offering individual legal support for Christopher, and other students like him, the Education Project aims to push for systemic improvements in the provision of special education services in New Orleans schools. Finger says, “By helping students like Christopher, we are helping our community. Every student deserves to receive a quality education.”