Peggy Nicholson '11 on Helping Low-Income Children in North Carolina
Called to Serve is a series of Q&As with young UVA Law alumni working in public service careers.
Peggy Nicholson, a 2011 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, is a staff attorney for a nonprofit project that provides free legal assistance to low-income children across North Carolina who are facing problems with the education system.
Nicholson recently discussed her advocacy on behalf of children, her career path, her time at UVA Law and her advice to current law students interested in pursuing a similar job.
What sort of work does Legal Aid of North Carolina perform? What are your primary duties there?
Each year, thousands of students in North Carolina are pushed out of school and into the juvenile delinquency and adult criminal court systems. The policies and practices that lead to school push-out are often referred to collectively as the "school-to-prison pipeline." My organization, Advocates for Children's Services (ACS), is a special statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina. ACS focuses on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline in North Carolina through individual legal representation, community education, and collaboration on education justice issues. As a staff attorney with ACS, I provide free legal advice and representation to students from low-wealth families on a variety of school push-out issues such as academic failure, special education, suspension, mistreatment by school resource officers and discrimination. I also get to conduct community education events across the state to inform parents and advocates of students' education rights and to train them on how to enforce those rights. Finally, I get to collaborate regularly with other organizations and individuals working for education justice in North Carolina.
What is a typical day like for you?
Like most legal service jobs, every day is different. Here is a composite that gives a picture of what a typical day at ACS could include:
First thing in the morning, I head to the office to send off a request for records. In almost every case, the first step we take is requesting the student's education records from the school. These records not only provide us with an overview of the student's background, they often contain evidence of violations by the school and critical factual information to support our argument that a student needs more services or should not be suspended from school. While at the office, I may also need to research a local school district's policies in order to advise a parent on how to request a suspension appeal hearing or file a grievance. Depending on the day, I may also be working on a demand letter to a school, which outlines the legal violations, how those violations negatively impacted the student, and the relief the school needs to provide to get the student back on track.
Next up, I head to a school for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team meeting (i.e. a meeting to discuss special education services) or a suspension appeal hearing. Since our clients must have a continuing relationship with the school, we almost always attempt to resolve the issue in school-based meetings or hearings to prevent the situation from becoming unnecessarily adversarial. However, if we can't reach an agreement with the school or district, we may file an administrative complaint with a state-level or federal agency, or appeal a suspension to Superior Court.
In the afternoon, I go visit a client at his house. Unlike most law firms, we go to the clients rather than making the clients come to us. This is our policy for a couple reasons. First, we represent low-income people who don't always have reliable access to transportation. Second, the student is our client and we represent the client's expressed wishes. To do this effectively, we must build a relationship with the client, which is easier to do in a setting where they feel comfortable (i.e. their home, rather than a law office). Although traveling to the client's home takes more time, it is an important part of building a sense of trust and solidarity.
In the evening, I go to a local church to conduct a presentation for a community group that serves low-income parents. In our presentations, we inform parents and advocates about the important legal rights that children have in schools. We also give them information and template forms that will help them enforce those rights. At these events, we always try to encourage dialogue since many parents feel alone in their fight against school push-out.
Could you describe your career path?
I entered law school knowing that I wanted to practice public interest law. I also had an interest in child advocacy, which developed over the course of my law school career. As a 3L, I created a fellowship project focused on improving access to public education for students involved in the juvenile justice system. My fellowship project was funded by the UVA Powell Fellowship in Legal Services and ACS agreed to host my project. I began the two-year fellowship project after graduating from UVA. When my fellowship ended, ACS hired me as a staff attorney.
Did you always want to work in legal aid? What about it appeals to you?
As I said above, I always knew that I wanted to practice public interest law. Although I had an interest in child advocacy when I started law school, I wasn't sure exactly what field I would end up in after graduation. Through internships, pro bono opportunities and clinical experiences, I developed a passion for working on juvenile justice and education issues. Not only do I love working with students and parents, the importance of ensuring that youth receive quality education and rehabilitative services cannot be overstated. Public education is the foundation for so much else in our society. At ACS, I get to simultaneously work on impact issues affecting public education in North Carolina, while also fighting for individual students to receive the sound, basic education they have a right to under state and federal law.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced in your job?
Over the past few years, there have been significant cuts to critical safety nets in North Carolina, including public education. Schools are underfunded, teachers are underpaid, and classrooms have no resources. It has been extremely difficult to watch my clients bear the burden of this austerity. While the representation I provide helps make a small difference in the lives of my clients, I believe we will see the biggest change when our state decides to begin adequately funding public education and other critical services.
Were there any courses or clinics at UVA Law that particularly helped prepare you for your career? How so?
I took Education Law with Professor Jim Ryan, which helped prepare me for many of the constitutional and school funding issues I have encountered in my work. I also took a Special Education J-Term course with Jim Ryan and Angela Ciolfi, which provided me with a very practical introduction to the complex world of federal special education law. However, the most helpful preparation by far was my participation in the Child Advocacy Clinic. In the clinic, I worked on real cases, attended IEP meetings, met with students and parents, and received practical training on how to represent students. I would definitely recommend this clinic to anyone interested in working with youth or on education or juvenile justice issues.
Can you offer any advice to UVA Law students interested in following a similar career path?
As early as possible, connect with the organizations and individuals doing the work that you want to do. ACS is one of the only organizations doing this type of work in North Carolina. I first discovered ACS through a PILA Spring Break trip in 2009. After the trip, I stayed connected with ACS, which eventually led to ACS agreeing to host my fellowship project. There are also many UVA alumni doing child advocacy work across the country. Speaking with those alumni about their work is a great way to narrow your focus, get advice on fellowship proposals or find job opportunities.