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New York City
November 2003

Beth Lief, Civil Rights Attorney & Education Visionary
by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Mentors in the professional development of this leading civil rights attorney turned top-level educational leader? She pauses; Beth Lief’s really thinking this through, there will be nothing pat, rehearsed in her answer. Slim, almost diminutive, this smart, focused education mover and shaker projects an easy-going manner despite the intensity of her work and the passion with which she pursues her objectives. Yes, there are colleagues whom she has particularly admired over the years, among them Jack Greenberg, groundbreaking head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, with whom she worked, Judge Morris Lasker, for whom she clerked and from whom she absorbed an estimable “notion of justice,” the education scholar Lauren Resnick, whose emphasis on higher standards confirmed Lief’s own course toward rigorous curricula, but most of all—the mentor of her life has been her “father, a Rabbi.” Her voice softens, she leans forward as though the intimacy of the recollection might bring back the days when she made rounds with him, when he was chaplain for Legal Aid, ministering in prisons and poor neighborhoods and instilling in her a deep commitment to social justice. His heritage has been her life’s work as a moral imperative, first as a public interest and civil rights attorney and then as an articulate advocate for improving urban public education, especially for disadvantaged youngsters, including children in special education.

Even before she went to college (Barnard, a fourth year at Yale) and then, on scholarship, to Law School (NYU) she had been active in her suburban high school’s Freedom Center, where she came to appreciate the necessity of “power” in making systemic change. The move to law school was inevitable, and for close to nine years thereafter, she worked on and eventually headed up the health and housing dockets for the Legal Defense Fund. Among her cases was her suit against Mayor Koch’s plans to close city hospitals. More work on class action affirmative action led to her successfully litigating the1981 Kansas City School Desegregation Case, which taught her an important lesson: she saw that while courts could be a last resort for “access,” they could not litigate “quality.” This awareness propelled her into the work she has been doing now for over 20 years.

A son with special education needs also prompted her to join, establish, and head up, in succession, a striking number of important panels on both special and general education for K-12. She laughs, trying to remember all the boards on which she has served, federal, state and regional, but points out that no matter the number, her work “is always the same.” She is a hopeful realist. She knows, for example, that the city needs 1,400 good leaders, and that “we don’t yet have them,” but is adamant that improvements in literacy and math can be made and that not enough is being asked of youngsters. There will be schools that don’t make it, but cynicism is hardly an answer; it’s merely an attitude, you can’t do anything with it.

A prime example of her determination was her extensive work as founding president of New Visions For Public Schools, the largest such nonprofit in the city, with initiatives in over 700 schools and national replication under Annenberg and NSF grants. Central to the New Visions mission, says Lief, is the belief that solid principles of learning in small-scale schools can overcome low expectations. Creating such schools was only part of the enterprise, however. Equally important was ensuring that leaders developed others as leaders. You can have all the money in the world but if you don’t have sustaining investment in “human capital,” nothing will last. In the late `80s, early `90s, a heady time for school reform, when technological resources seemed particularly promising, the indefatigable Beth Lief was soon moving around the Department of Education as VP for Strategic Planning, for the Internet-based Teachscape, a venture she enjoyed but that took her away from the nonprofit world. Is it any surprise, then, that this past February she joined the internationally regarded Institute for Learning as a National Fellow to help incorporate high-level performance structures in districts 1 and 2 in the Bronx and to serve as site liaison for coordination efforts linking research and practice.

Back to working in areas of greatest need, back to her professional roots. Her father would have been proud.#

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