Guest columnist Jaz Williams: The difference an advocate makes in schools


Published: 10/20/2022 4:35:18 PM

As a former teacher I remember my yearly recitation about how we (the parents, student, teachers and school administrators) needed to work together to make this school year a great one. I am sure many others — students and parents — can recall hearing that same message. It is a message many have received, but one that many do not see put into practice.

I went to law school specifically to pursue education law because I was troubled by the dysfunctional systems I encountered while teaching special education. As a teacher, I found that schools were in a Gilded Age where the walls were brightly colored and the rooms were filled with fun songs and projects, but underneath, the foundations were rotted and decaying. The fact remains that children are being taught to take tests and not to learn. Parents’ concerns for their kids are not addressed unless they affect the learning environment. Even when concerns are addressed, too many schools only put Band-Aids in place while never dealing with the underlying foundational problems.

Now, when I walk into a school in the role of an advocate, the change in attitude that I observe is palpable. Suddenly, the utmost effort is made to guarantee that meetings involving my clients are done by the book, and everyone is working cooperatively. Families not only receive their rights and procedural safeguards, but the school takes care to ensure the documents are in the family’s native language and thoroughly reviews them to ensure everyone is on the same page. Teachers and staff are suddenly available and have data and exemplars to present. Issues that have been boiling over for years are suddenly resolved in one conversation. Often, something as simple as a school really listening to a parent describe a child’s needs instead of just talking over that parent can be a huge contributing factor to a successful school year. Many families I work with are amazed by how easy and collaborative a school meeting can be when everyone is working towards the common goal of helping the student succeed.

As much as I love my job, I remain aware that it should not take a legal advocate coming into the school to ensure that it provides adequate educational services to students. Unfortunately, the education arena remains one of the most glaring examples of wealth inequity and disparities families face in this country. By making education law a priority for our organization, Community Legal Aid leads the effort in our region to help families and students vindicate their educational rights.

Community Legal Aid’s core mission is ensuring equal justice for all, including, at the school level, for children as young as three, and there is always more work to be done. Every time I leave a successful meeting, or close a case with a good outcome for a child, I think of the hundreds of other families who are not getting the help and support that Community Legal Aid offers. Where children live and what school they attend can shape their entire future. This is especially true if a family is not receiving the proper tools and supports a child needs to be successful in school. To that end, if you or someone you know is facing educational barriers, contact our education team at Community Legal Aid.

Community Legal Aid provides free civil legal services to the low-income and elderly residents of the five counties of western and central Massachusetts (Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester), and maintains a full time offices in Northampton, as well as offices in Worcester, Fitchburg, Springfield, and Pittsfield. CLA works to assure fairness for all in the justice system, protecting homes, livelihoods, health and families. Area residents would like to apply for assistance should visit Community Legal Aid’s website,, or call 1-855-252-5342.

Jaz Williams is an education staff advocate in Community Legal Aid’s Worcester Office. Prior to attending law school, Ms. Williams taught special education for grades 1-8 for five years. Ms. Williams can be reached at (508) 425-2789 or


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