Justice

Supreme Court: How a Classroom of Students Moved a DC Attorney

As a college student, Caroline Van Zile (New York City ’06) never imagined the impact her future students would have on her life and career.
Thursday, April 14, 2016

Caroline Van Zile (New York City ’06) had an impressive goal during her first year as a seventh-grade English teacher in Brooklyn: all of her students had to increase their reading level by at least one and a half grade levels before the end of the school year.

It was a lofty goal, but one Caroline and her colleagues were able to achieve, and even exceed in the case of one of her young students, Serenity, whose reading ability jumped by three grade levels in a single year.

"For me, honesty was the prerequisite in terms of connecting with my kids and making that incredible progress," Caroline says.

Now an associate with the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington, D.C., Caroline believes anything is possible after leading a classroom of 30 spirited children.

Before she made the decision to enroll in law school, Caroline worked as a recruiter for Teach For America, which allowed her the opportunity to reflect on her continued role in promoting educational equity for all students. A year after leaving the classroom, she returned as a law student at Yale University, determined to become a leader in educational litigation or policy.

At Yale, Caroline stayed connected with students and continued to push forward on the education front. She taught part time in New Haven’s public schools, served as president of the Project for Law and Education at Yale, and participated in her university’s education advocacy clinic.

Upon graduation, Caroline clerked for circuit and district court judges in Washington, D.C., and Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015—experiences she likens to teaching.

"There are some really complex legal doctrines and precedents out there, so you're trying to distill all this knowledge from the cases and the briefs to make it simple and digestible,” Caroline says. "And that's exactly like teaching. It's all about taking these sometimes very complicated ideas, breaking them down, and making them simple and digestible and doable, and exciting even, for your students."

Caroline Van Zile

Even though Caroline is now working on her firm’s litigation team, she’s still able to stay connected to educational equity through her pro bono work helping reform the education system for foster youth in Washington, D.C.

Students in the foster care system are an increasingly vulnerable segment of the population and face perhaps the worst opportunity gap in the nation, Caroline says. Challenges surrounding school choice and accountability—in the past, schools haven’t been required to report on the academic achievement of this specific segment of their student body—are also widely experienced by students in foster care.

Caroline’s goal is to ensure these students have access to all the educational options that children at home with their biological parents enjoy.

“One of the ideas is to make sure that every child has a person in their life who is aware of those choices and is able to make those decisions,” she says.  

For Caroline, her experience at TFA was one that didn’t end after she left the classroom in Brooklyn. It was an experience that shaped the course of her life and career, and placed educational equity at the forefront of her work.

"As a college student, it's impossible to know or imagine how profoundly a classroom full of students can touch your life,” Caroline says.

Want to make a difference like Caroline? Apply to Teach For America, and awaken kids' potential and your own.

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