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Serving the Diverse Needs of Children through Education Law with Patricia Hennessy, Partner at Barton Gilman | Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.

7 min read

In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Patricia Hennessy, Partner at Barton Gilman, to discuss the wide range of legal tools education lawyers employ to serve the needs of children. Pat is co-chair of the firm’s Education Law Group and an education reform activist and advocate.

Can you tell us a little bit about what attracted you to education reform and the education reform movement?

Honestly, most of the attraction came from the fact that my mom essentially raised four kids in a Philadelphia row home – four kids, 3 bedrooms, do the math. She placed great importance on education, and I didn’t realize at the time the amount of sacrifice that took. We went to K-12 schools in the Archdiocesan system. She produced four very learned and successful children because she placed such an emphasis on education. That’s what attracted me to work in the field and to recognize that there are kids out there who just never had that chance and didn’t have that type of support or didn’t have those opportunities. That’s what’s drawn me into this movement and drawn me to education reform.

Gina Rubel: Pat, I have to ask you off the cuff. Where did you grow up in Philadelphia?

Patricia Hennessy: I grew up in the Wissinoming section in Northeast Philadelphia.

Gina Rubel: What high school?

Patricia Hennessy: I went to Nazareth Academy.

Gina Rubel: I’m a Saint Maria Goretti graduate, so I know what it’s like to grow up in that. Ours was a three-bedroom row home, 16 by 19. Do the math, right? I get where you’re coming from.

What are some of the misconceptions about the types of schools that you represent? I believe some of them are charter schools and private schools.

The majority of my work probably centers on the charter school movement, and we fight against the stigma that we are a group of individuals who want to loot the public school system for a private entity, that we fail students, and that we don’t take the hardest-to-educate students. By and large, that narrative doesn’t work.

Charter schools are formed as public, nonprofit entities, so there’s nobody profiting off of the opening of a charter school. Particularly in Philadelphia, charter schools do take some of the hardest-hit kids – traditionally disadvantaged students, kids who are in poverty, and African Americans, who have always been cut short in terms of what they’ve been given in the educational realm. We do serve all of the hardest-hit kids, and we are just another jewel in the crown in terms of educational options for parents. We continually fight that type of narrative in terms of what we do, how we do it, and what we bring to the table in terms of equity.

Do you also represent private schools or is it predominantly charter?

It’s predominantly charter. I do work with private schools. I work with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in their school system as well, and those challenges are somewhat the same. Those institutions are also attempting to educate kids in the best way for those kids to be educated. In the city of Philadelphia, the Archdiocese in particular has been a stalwart in providing education to disadvantaged kids in the city.

Gina Rubel: When we talk about private schools, they’re private parochial. What does that mean?

Patricia Hennessy: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is essentially five counties of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Those are religious schools run under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the Catholic Church. Private schools generally cover the gamut. You have some very tony type of schools, and then you have other schools that are trying to help disadvantaged kids as well. I like to support all of the options that kids can have, not just the traditional public school district, which also requires our support. We’re all trying to row the oars in the same direction, so I don’t favor one over the other. We’re all part of the same continuum.

Gina Rubel: The only reason I knew to ask that question is because I went to an Archdiocese high school. I never really understood until I was a parent that all students don’t learn equally and that different types of schools support different types of education, just like there are different types of food options that support individual health needs. It’s interesting that there are so many options for today’s learning environment. I appreciate what you do.

What’s the hardest part about practicing education law?

I think it’s twofold. On a professional level, when you talk to other lawyers, it’s like, “Oh education law. That’s adorable. It’s little kids. It’s little chairs, and it’s love and lollipops and happiness.” But that’s not what it’s like to work as a school lawyer. You deal with difficult topics. We see the ugly parts of schools. I had a client just recently comment to me that they deal with ugliness, but by and large, their job has a lot of other factions to it. But that’s all I ever see.

That’s the hardest part. When you see kids being mistreated or just the struggles that some families have when they’re trying to do the best by their kids, that’s hard to take sometimes.

Tell me a little bit about the day in the life of an education lawyer. What are some of those issues? I would guess it could be anything from child abuse to policies.

I always say I wake up every single day with a to-do list that I never get to, because it’s sort of cyclical. It starts in the morning with what I call the car line questions – when the administrator comes back in and there are things that are bubbling in the morning that are hard. Those things can be, “This kid showed up to school today and he’s covered with bruises and he’s bleeding. Clearly, something happened either on the way to school, at home, or whatever. We now have to deal with that particular issue.”

We could have a situation where a kid doesn’t know how to regulate themselves in the school because there’s a disability involved. That’s difficult. Sometimes you have very difficult parents that you need to deal with. Sometimes you have very difficult employees. It runs the gamut on what you can see on a daily basis.

I try to root my practice in what’s the best thing to do for a child and get everybody on the same page in terms of what we need to do for those kids. That’s even for things that don’t seem like they have a connection to kids at the moment. Is there a teacher who’s just not holding up their end of the bargain? At the end of the day, that’s not serving kids. We need to deal with that teacher one way or the other. It’s either increasing the training, doing something different, or moving them onto a different position.

Can you envision a time when there will be more civil discourse on education reform?

I hope so. I do think that there were some great opportunities during the pandemic that did start the conversation on the right foot. It didn’t maintain itself, but that gave me some level of hope. A lot of schools were trying to work together in terms of “How do we serve kids now? Are you opening today? What are we doing?” We’d get together as groups and actually have conversations. Watching that gave me hope.

What didn’t give me hope were things like not working with cyber charter schools, which I work with. If we were having remote learning, that would be the perfect opportunity to reach out to those types of schools and say, “Hey, how is it that you do this?” By and large, no one wanted to tap them for that level of expertise that they have in that arena. I do think it’s going to change as time goes on.

It all boils down to funding. That’s what creates the bad dialogue that happens. That’s both the federal and state levels and even sometimes down to the local. There’s a limited pot of money, and people need to understand that we’ve had this huge Commonwealth court ruling that talks about 796 pages’ worth of stuff about the constitutionality of what we provide in terms of education and funding. It boiled down to two words in that entire thing, which was money matters. But money matters to all schools, not just traditional public schools. It matters to every single school that’s trying to educate kids.

What advice do you have for young attorneys or law students who might be interested in education law?

I see a growing number of law students and recent graduates who are getting interested in working in education law, and that also gives me a great deal of hope. I would suggest to them that they start to do things like going to your local school board meeting. If you live in that district, you have public access to go in and see what those things look like, and you see the types of topics that folks are talking about.

Get involved on a volunteer board of any school – private school, charter school, whatever those may be. That will also give you an insider view of what a school board deals with, regardless of the types of education that they deliver.

An education lawyer has to be well-versed in pretty much every area of the law.  I call myself the general counsel for a lot of mini-corporations. You have to know how to do a whole gamut of things in addition to just the educational aspects. If you’re in law school, make sure you’re taking a broad swath of topics, including things like contracts and employment law, because you will be torn in a million different directions in terms of what you’re practicing.

Gina Rubel: It doesn’t sound like you ever get bored.

Patricia Hennessy: No, absolutely not.

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Patricia Hennessy

Learn more about Barton Gilman

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/patricia-hennessy-082224a/

 

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