'Some Kind of Difference'
Igor Raykin spent a decade teaching underserved kids before entering education law
Published in 2021 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine on March 9, 2021
When Igor Raykin graduated from law school in 2000, he didn’t want to be a lawyer. Nor did he want to be a reporter, citing the dim career prospects, even though he got his bachelor’s in journalism. “For a long time, I wanted to teach,” he adds. “But I let some people talk me out of the prospect.”
After talking himself back into it, the following summer Raykin entered Metropolitan State University of Denver’s teaching program. Because of the timing, he had limited internship options; but Metro had an arrangement with the juvenile prison, Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, and Raykin jumped at it.
“We came from Russia when I was 4 years old, and I spent my first 11 years in the United States growing up in public housing,” he says. “I had grown up in a pretty rough neighborhood, so I had a comfort level with challenging kids.”
Raykin loved the kids, the work, all of it—and was offered a permanent position after his internship. “Initially, I thought, ‘This is it. I have found what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to teach and work with kids who have had some difficulties in their life,’” he says.
For the next six years, he taught subjects such as history, government and economics to young men aged 14 to 21. It wasn’t always easy.
“Sometimes you work with a kid and you think you have a really good relationship, but he has a bad day, and says, ‘Fuck you.’ I heard that so many times I thought it was my name,” Raykin says.
Despite the challenges, the rewards far outweighed them and Raykin stuck with it. He even went on to help start a school for homeless children called the Academy of Urban Learning.
“Another teacher told me something that I took to heart: ‘Your hope should be not that you’re going to teach a kid a few things and reform him in a few weeks. Your hope is that something that you say to that kid is going to pay off five, six years from now, when they’re older,’” he recalls.
In 2009, Raykin became a dean at West High School in Denver. “I was on my way to becoming a principal in another DPS school,” he says, “but the longer I worked as a dean, the more I realized I wanted to have a broader impact.”
He soon realized he needed to take a different approach. “A lot of these kids could absolutely do well if they received proper services, but I knew they weren’t getting them. I thought, ‘This isn’t right and, as a principal, I’m not going to be able to do anything about that. There’s just no way I’m going to be able to make resource allocation decisions that are going to result in special-needs kids being treated properly,’” he says.
Charged by the idea that lawyers can create systemic change, Raykin dusted off his J.D. and passed the bar. He has since built an education law practice that represents teachers and students, while advocating for those most in need.
“Because I had so much experience working with special-needs kids, I knew how underserved they were. A typical special-needs population is 8% to 12% in a school district. At Lookout Mountain, it’s around 30%. That’s a lot of kids who simply aren’t capable of speaking for themselves and don’t know how inadequate the services that they’re receiving actually are,” he says.
Seeing students develop is something Raykin still misses today—“You don’t get that same kind of opportunity being a lawyer”—and it’s something he hopes to return to when he retires. He has hired a few former students as paralegals and legal assistants, though, helping them on career paths that might have otherwise been rocky. And he even got to see the teaching advice from his co-worker bear out.
“Whenever I ran into kids in court, they were always happy to see me,” Raykin says. “Sometimes they would tell me, ‘I remember you told me this,’ which I didn’t even remember, but I took it to heart. It has happened enough times that it was reassuring to me—knowing that I had made some kind of a difference.”