Bitner '14 Receives Skadden Fellowship to Fight for Education Rights of Homeless Children
Third-year University of Virginia law student Robyn Bitner has been selected to receive a Skadden Fellowship, one of the nation's most prestigious public service fellowships available to young attorneys.
"I am not sure if it's possible to be more excited than I am," she said. "On some level, I still can't believe it happened."
The Skadden Fellowship Program was established in 1988 by the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to support graduating law students who wish to devote their professional lives to providing legal services to the poor, the elderly, the homeless and the disabled, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights.
As part of the two-year fellowship, which provides a salary and benefits, Bitner will work at Advocates for Children of New York and will focus on the education rights of homeless children under the age of 5 in New York City.
"These children have a legal right to access special education services to address developmental delays and to attend public preschool programs," she said. "However, most of these children are not receiving services or attending preschool. I will provide direct legal representation to homeless families to ensure that their children have access to high-quality early childhood education."
Advocates for Children of New York is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting every child's right to an education, focusing on students from low-income backgrounds who are struggling in school or experiencing school discrimination.
Bitner, who taught early elementary school in the South Bronx as a member of Teach for America before law school, said education has always been critically important to her.
"While teaching kindergarten and first grade in the South Bronx, I was reminded every day of the power of education to build hope and resiliency," she said. "I also recognized how critical it was for my students to receive academic intervention as early as possible to address any deficits and catch up with their peers."
During her time at UVA Law, Bitner took nearly every course that addressed education law and children's rights, most notably including the Child Advocacy Clinic. In the clinic, which is offered in conjunction with the Legal Aid Justice Center, law students help low-income children across Virginia who need legal representation.
"Having the opportunity to work during my 2L year on school discipline, special education and juvenile justice issues was crucial to building my own knowledge and experience," Bitner said. "In addition, it made it easier to get my foot in the door at potential host organizations during the fellowship process."
After her first year in law school, Bitner worked in the U.S. District Attorney's Office in Denver. The following summer, she worked at the nonprofit Education Law Center in Philadelphia.
"When I arrived at law school, I knew that I wanted to spend my career protecting low-income students' access to education," she said. "I never imagined that my fellowship project would allow me to do so in the area of early childhood education, which has been identified as the most effective way to close the achievement gap and has the added bonus of being an area of education about which I am incredibly passionate."
Bitner said she is "undoubtedly very lucky" to be receiving the fellowship and is thankful for the support of her family, mentors and friends.