The Confidence Builder
How Jennifer Frankola’s work as a Bronx middle school teacher informs her special-needs practice
Published in 2020 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on October 28, 2020
Updated on October 30, 2020
In September 2001, Jennifer Frankola was scheduled to take the LSAT at the World Trade Center. The attack affected more than the exam for Frankola. “9/11 clarified my perspectives on things,” she says. “I felt called to public service.”
Education had always been important in Frankola’s family—“it was seen as a door opener for immigrant kids like myself,” she says—while a courtroom visit for a Manhattan College course opened her eyes further. The case being tried, Campaign for Fiscal Equity Inc. v. State of New York, was about the disparity in education based on ZIP codes. So when Frankola’s mother showed her an ad for a teaching fellowship—an offshoot of Teach For America—that focused on underserved schools, she was all in.
“It was typically for people who are changing careers, but I took a shot and they hired me,” Frankola recalls. “I was their fifth cohort. I think now they’re up to like a hundred.”
For two years, Frankola was a middle school teacher at an overcrowded school in the Bronx. She taught English. And when the social studies teacher quit, she taught social studies; and when the ESL teacher quit, she taught ESL. “I was also a homeroom teacher,” she says. “So I was the anchor for a lot of kids. I worked very closely with special education teacher support services to ensure that kids got the right amount of tutoring, because many of our kids struggled with literacy or math.”
The makeup of the school was diverse: “kids from Vietnam, Mexico, Honduras, refugees from Kosovo, and then kids from the neighborhood,” Frankola says. “I related to them. I didn’t grow up in the Bronx, but a lot of them were first or second generation, and I wanted to make sure they got a quality education and that we provided them with opportunities to do well in high school and beyond.”
She knows the success stories because she still keeps in touch with some of her students. “One is in the military, some got their MBAs, some are teachers now, some are models. I have one that’s an artist and a photographer. One is an award-winning comedian who’s doing really well for herself.”
Once the fellowship was over, Frankola entered CUNY School of Law, where the mantra is “Law in the Service of Human Needs.” She lived up to it—interning at the Innocence Project in New Orleans and doing legal aid work in Durban, South Africa, for the summer. In her third year, she was named a Project Equity Fellow, working with children with disabilities on behalf of Advocates for Children of New York. “I got to connect with lawyers, social workers and nonlawyer advocates that were trained in identifying issues within the public schools, representing students and families at [Individualized Education Plan] meetings, as well as impartial hearings,” she says. “They also do a lot of policy work, so it exposed me to that as well.”
During Frankola’s time as a teacher, she had a number of students with learning disabilities who had IEPs, which is a big part of her legal practice today. “I had seen how some kids, when they had an advocate—whether their parents or a lawyer—they ended up getting more,” she recalls. “It inspired me to think about going into that area of law.”
The fact that education law is a combination of social justice and civil rights work sealed it for her. “And that there was a need here right in my own city,” she adds.
Today the bulk of her work is counseling families on special education needs. “It takes a lot of emotional aptitude and intelligence to work as not only a lawyer for families but also as a counselor,” Frankola says. “You wear multiple hats when you’re creating a family plan and an educational plan for families with children with learning disabilities. Organization has served me well. And enthusiasm: having a positive attitude and building confidence in others.”