An Interview with Featured Child and Family Advocacy Fellowship Alumna Courtney Rodriguez Sales ’13

 In Family Law, Winter 2018-19

Hofstra Law Alumni Profile Series

In every issue of FamilyLaw@HofstraLaw, we will be profiling a successful Hofstra Law alumnus. We are proud to feature in this issue the below interview with our illustrious alumnus, Courtney Rodriguez Sales ’13.

Positively Impacting a Community’s “Expendable” Children by Founding Bloom Academy Charter School in Houston

We are extremely proud to profile Courtney Rodriguez Sales, a distinguished alumna of Hofstra Law’s Child and Family Advocacy Fellowship, who has had an amazing journey and forged a very special path as a dedicated child advocate. Courtney’s deep commitment to public service and to helping children in the community began right after she graduated from college with her two years of service as a Teach for America teacher in her hometown of the Bronx. While attending law school, Courtney continued her chosen path as the managing editor of the Family Court Review, a law student advisor in the Nassau County Youth Court, a co-facilitator in the Youth Advocacy Center and by helping to establish Hofstra Law’s first Juvenile Justice Clinic. She was also a law intern in both the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and The Legal Aid Society, where she advocated on behalf of children.

Following her graduation from Hofstra Law, Courtney represented children as a Juvenile Public Defender in Pittsburgh, was a project manager for the department of Professional Development at the Pittsburgh Board of Education, and since 2017, has been a Fellow in Building Excellent Schools, a program devoted to training individuals to take on the demanding work of leading college preparatory urban charter schools.

Courtney’s most recent significant achievement is the founding of Bloom Academy Charter School (K-5) in Houston, Texas, where she will be truly making a difference in educating the community’s most at-risk children. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Courtney about her unusual professional journey following law school and her most extraordinary work in starting a brand-new school scheduled to open in August 2019.

Why did you choose child advocacy as a career path?

Children are our most vulnerable population. It is the responsibility of adults to ensure that children have every opportunity to lead healthy and successful lives — yet adults often drop the ball, and this is particularly true when it comes to children of color, children with disabilities, and those who are raised in low-income households. While I recognized that this disparity in treatment existed as a Black Latina growing up in the Bronx, I was more intimately exposed to it as a corps member of Teach for America, a nonprofit organization whose selected teachers commit to teaching for at least two years in a public or public charter K-12 school in underserved communities across the United States. Sadly, we as a nation have created a class of expendable children — children that end up being funneled through the school to prison pipeline. Recognizing this harsh truth, there was absolutely no way that I would dedicate my life to anything but advocating on behalf of disadvantaged children.

What was your first position after graduating from law school?

After law school, I was selected for a position as a Public Defender in Pittsburgh. Initially, I was responsible for representing indigent adults in their criminal proceedings, but ultimately, I spent the majority of my time as a Public Defender representing children charged with crimes. I loved representing children but became increasingly frustrated with the way in which the court system was designed to handle juvenile cases. I felt like a small cog in a big machine, and no matter how hard I advocated on behalf of my clients, I felt like I was just spinning my wheels. I was especially troubled by the number of school-based “offenses” that resulted in children having criminal records — offenses that I believe could have been addressed without court intervention. I later transitioned to work at the Board of Education’s Central Office in Pittsburgh and was contacted by Building Excellent Schools and encouraged to apply for their fellowship program.

What is Building Excellent Schools and the Fellowship?

Building Excellent Schools is a nonprofit organization that has developed high capacity leaders across the nation who are trained to design and found game-changing schools for students in underserved communities. Through the rigorous one-year fellowship, our cohort traveled to and studied over 40 high-performing schools across the country while simultaneously designing schools, engaging community members in our home territories, and building our board of directors. I applied to establish Bloom Academy in Houston, Texas, because of the great demand for high-performing schools in the city. Texas sets an extremely high bar to obtain a charter, as it should, given the great responsibility entailed. There were 21 applicants, and Bloom Academy was one of four ultimately approved to open by the Texas Education Agency and State Board of Education. While our team is extremely excited and humbled by the opportunity to open Bloom Academy, we understand the great challenge ahead of us as we begin to establish the school.

Tell us more about Bloom Academy and the mission and vision for the school. Why did you ultimately decide to take this path?

Bloom Academy Charter School will open in one of Houston’s most economically challenged zip codes with several struggling schools. It is also a historically black community with a rich history of advocacy. We were very deliberate about trying to understand our community’s expressed needs and desires and to create a tightly aligned mission and vision around them. Our mission is ambitious, “Through rigor, joy, and character development, Bloom Academy Charter School prepares all kindergarten through fifth-grade scholars for success in middle school, high school, and college and to lead lives of positive impact in their communities.” We will work every day to equip students with the academic and social skill sets necessary for them to feel empowered both in and out of school.

This all starts day one in kindergarten. In addition to a heavy emphasis on developing strong readers and mathematicians, one of the key components of our design is the intentional development of leadership voice and advocacy beginning in kindergarten. We believe that children have a voice and should have agency in their communities. There is always a new hot-button phrase or curriculum or program that hits the field of education that people are drawn to. However, I firmly believe that no matter what path you take or who you want to be when you grow up, you absolutely must know how to respectfully use your voice to enact change, whether it’s on behalf of yourself or others. Additionally, we believe that safe and appropriate behavior is something that needs to be explicitly taught to children and therefore take a restorative approach to discipline at Bloom Academy. Children deserve to be children. They deserve to laugh. They deserve to be in an educational space where it is okay to make academic or behavioral mistakes. They deserve to have loving adults in front of them every day who provide them with a high-quality educational experience and have the highest expectations of them. There is a negative narrative about the capabilities of black and brown children in poor communities in this country — and that’s why we named the school Bloom Academy. We believe all children can bloom when adults provide them with the right environment and tools to do so.

I have served in the classroom, courtroom, and boardroom and witnessed the ways in which policy, systems and procedures are sometimes created, whether intentionally or not, to benefit adults, often to the detriment of children. I have worked with children who have made mistakes and adults did not give them the benefit of the doubt. I have taught fifth-graders on first- and second-grade reading and math levels who were pushed through from grade to grade out of convenience instead of academic merit.

I have worked with youth aging out of foster care who did not feel prepared for the challenge of adulthood. I have witnessed school districts try to devise clever ways to push students with special needs out of their schoolhouse doors. It is all these things that led me to the work of founding this charter school, as well as my belief that the greatest impact on a child’s life outside of their home occurs in school. Bloom Academy is designed to change the trajectory of our scholars’ lives and to ensure that they are firmly set on the path to college from day one. We have high expectations and all of the love in the world for every child who walks through our doors.

What are your responsibilities as Founder of Bloom Academy?

Everything. Currently, we are in what we call “year zero,” which means I have been spending and will be spending every moment leading up to the school opening in August finalizing the school’s curriculum, hiring high-capacity staff, managing the budget, creating marketing materials, securing a facility, and recruiting students and families. When the school opens, I will serve as the Head of School and oversee the academic program as well as disciplinary matters. I report directly to our Board of Directors, a passionate and impressive group of individuals from the Houston community who are staunchly focused on the academic success of all our students.

How has Hofstra Law prepared you to take on this challenge?

As a Child and Family Advocacy Fellow, I was given the opportunity to participate in several programs that directly impact children’s lives. I completed internships at Court Appointed Special Advocates, the NYCLU, and The Legal Aid Society Juvenile Division. I also had the distinct pleasure of serving as the Managing Editor of the Family Court Review, Volume 51, and helped to launch Hofstra’s Juvenile Justice Clinic. The Center for Children, Families, and the Law always has innovative projects in which interested law students are able to meaningfully engage.

Overall, I believe the rigor of the courses offered and the multitude of initiatives available to make a positive impact on the community prepared me well for my lifelong journey in child advocacy. Now as the Founder of and Head of School at Bloom Academy, I am uniquely positioned to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education because of my educational and legal background. I am extremely proud to be a Hofstra Law alumna and look forward to hearing about the continued progress that future Child and Family Advocacy Fellows will be making in the field of family law and beyond.

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