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Student Spotlight

The Tools to Stay in School

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Avni BhatiaAvni Bhatia ’10 took a circuitous path to Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), where as a 2010 Skadden Fellow she works to reduce suspensions and ensure that children with behavioral challenges get the support they need to return to class. But in retrospect, every step led her to this mission.

While working as an art gallery tour guide at Yale University, where she majored in art history, she noticed that most of the visiting students were well-to-do children from private schools. So she reached out to the New Haven Public Schools to bring students from across the city to the gallery, and she developed an after-school art curriculum with the city’s public schools.

One of Bhatia’s post-graduation jobs, as a graphic designer at the Foundation for Child Development in New York, pushed her further toward young people and the law. As she started doing more program work and less design, she was stirred by the foundation, which funds research, policy, and advocacy work related to early childhood education. “The people who I thought were doing the most useful and exciting projects were lawyers,” Bhatia says.

Fittingly, her arrival at NYU Law coincided with the birth of a new student group, the Suspension Representation Project (SRP), whose members represent public school students in suspension hearings. The NYC Department of Education’s record in this area isn’t pretty: Long-term suspensions almost doubled between 2000 and 2008 (from 8,567 to 16,214); those facing suspension are disproportionately low-income students with disabilities.

Three years spent working with SRP helped Bhatia shape her current AFC fellowship. “Avni came to us unusually prepared,” says Kim Sweet, executive director of AFC. Now Bhatia is moving from representing suspended students to working on policy advocacy, outreach, and training, and she’s relishing the opportunity to follow children beyond the hearings and have an impact on their lives. “It’s so rare for me to meet a student, especially a young student, who does not want to go back to school,” says Bhatia. “All kids want to do great things, and we have to facilitate that.”

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