May 2011: Gisela K. Alvarez '93

Gisela K. Alvarez ’93 is the senior project director at Advocates for Children of New York, where she is focused on reforming the public school system to give all students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, access to the best education New York can provide.

In her first year at Harvard University, Alvarez decided to become a volunteer student teacher for Peace Games, Inc. (now Peace First), working with elementary students from low income neighborhoods in Cambridge and Boston. She recalls, “It was an eye-opening experience. I had always been shy, and I wanted to challenge myself, so I signed up. I soon realized that I was able to make lasting and sustainable change in the lives of these kids and their families. Children spend much of their day in school, so if you can make it a quality experience, you can prevent a lot of problems down the road.” Her experience led her to major in sociology with a focus on urban poverty. After completing a thesis on inclusionary education, Alvarez graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1997.

Alvarez spent a summer in an internship with the Manhattan district attorney’s office in New York City, and though she found the job interesting, she discovered that the work was not sufficiently focused on solutions. To further explore advocacy, she became an advocacy fellow at the Medicare Rights Center in New York, representing seniors and people with disabilities in administrative appeals and educating Medicare beneficiaries about their rights. Armed with an understanding of how advocacy is often necessary to make systems work the way they are supposed to, she decided to pursue her law degree. Alvarez knew that she wanted to use her degree to effect change in the same preemptive manner in which she viewed her teaching experience.

At New York University law school, Alvarez worked with New York City families in different capacities, first as an intern at The Door Legal Services Center, where she counseled young people between the ages of 12 and 21 in matters including public assistance, Social Security, emancipation, foster care, immigration, family law, and housing. The following summer, she interned at Advocates for Children, helping students to receive appropriate special education services and placements. She then participated in the Family Defense Clinic at NYU Law, collaborating with students at NYU’s school of social work to represent parents in neglect cases and in proceedings to terminate parental rights in family court. Alvarez received her J.D. from New York University in 2001 and returned to Advocates for Children of New York, where she has remained for the past ten years.

In her first year at Advocates as a Kirkland & Ellis Fellow, Alvarez created the Domestic Violence Project to ensure that children who had been exposed to family violence received necessary services and appropriate education in New York City public schools. In addition to representing families, Alvarez raised awareness among domestic violence providers and educators about the educational needs of children exposed to violence and urged the development of more targeted mental health resources. Coincidentally, her first day was the day before September 11, 2001, and as children previously exposed to violence were more susceptible to being affected by 9/11, she worked with children deeply disturbed by those events, many of whom required intensive therapeutic care. Recently, Alvarez used this experience of working with children exposed to trauma by drawing attention to the need for mental health services for Haitian children coming to the New York City schools following the catastrophic earthquake last year.

In 2002, Alvarez founded a nationally-recognized, model project to improve educational outcomes of children in the child welfare system and continues to serve as Child Welfare Educational Advocacy project director to this day. In this role, she trained and provided technical assistance to caseworkers on site at child welfare agencies and advocated for, and achieved, systemic change at the city, state, and national levels to address the educational needs of children from foster care both in New York and nationwide. In 2005, Alvarez founded and directed the Robin Hood Project at Advocates, established to meet the educational needs of children whose families are being served by an array of anti-poverty organizations, all of which are funded by the Robin Hood Foundation.

Alvarez was appointed senior project director at Advocates in 2006. In addition to overseeing Advocates’ child welfare program, she directs both the Immigrant Students’ Rights Project and initiatives involving older at-risk students. Advocates has been at the forefront of pushing for innovative policies, programs, and schools designed for older students who may take longer to graduate because they are students with disabilities or recent immigrants, or are caught up in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, or are experiencing homelessness. Part of this work is identifying and challenging policies that create disincentives in order to keep these students in school and help them graduate. One example is the New York City Department of Education’s aggressive policy of school closure. Alvarez acknowledges that it is sometimes the best course of action when a school is failing the majority of its students, but she is working hard to highlight the policy’s devastating effects on the city’s most vulnerable students.

“In this age where education is increasingly a focus and budgets are heavily scrutinized, we need thoughtful change. The answers aren’t easy, but they are there. In education advocacy, you can make a broad impact and help children to succeed, and you are not only helping the child, but you are helping the family, the school, and the community. My work gives young people the opportunities and skills to live the lives they want to lead, not the lives they have to lead. I have a full plate, but the work is compelling.”

“Hotchkiss gave me the confidence to try things,” says Alvarez. “The School is amazing because the richness of the experience gives you the opportunity to explore. Faculty members such as Tim Katzman, Sara Tames, and Geoff Marchant give you a great foundation for many pathways and vocations. Think about dedicating your life to improving your community. Hotchkiss will give you the tools.”

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