The story began rather typically. One sister went to law school, the other pursued a career in education. Over the years, older sister Hope fine-tuned her career as a teacher and administrator in special education in the New York City public schools, while younger sister Lori pursued a successful path as a trial lawyer.
Fast-forward to 1995. Hope Kirsch (who, full disclosure, is my wife) was now a practicing attorney after nearly 20 years as an educator. Lori Kirsch-Goodwin had two sons, one of whom had been diagnosed with autism. They lived in Phoenix and worked at a large law firm.
Even though they were successful there, the sisters left the firm and decided to focus on something that had become part of the fabric of their lives: students with disabilities. Thus Kirsch-Goodwin and Kirsch PLLC was born.
“Based on my background in education and then law, coupled with my nephew’s diagnosis, we knew we had to dedicate our lives to helping this community,” Hope said. “One cannot begin to describe the pain and frustration of parents of children with special needs who are not getting the proper services and support from the schools. These families are reaching out for help
“Families need guidance in navigating the special education web,” Lori added. “There are laws written to protect students and their families, but they are daunting and parents feel a sense of helplessness. Their only concern is to insure their children are provided for and given every opportunity to be successful in school and ultimately happy and productive members of society. That’s the space we operate in, holding schools and the educational system accountable.”
Work in this area is what steered Hope to Gesher Disability Resources, where she is a volunteer manager of a group home. Amy Hummell, Gesher’s executive director, said, “Our agency’s volunteers help at our social group outings, participate in our Simchat Shabbat services, and lend their professional expertise in real estate, law, medical and financial. I have also been fortunate to partner with so many wonderful people like Hope Kirsch and Lori Kirsch-Goodwin. I believe we are only stronger when we work together.”
The sisters’ practice includes advocacy, IEPs and 504s, due process litigation, Office of Civil Rights, discipline, restraint and seclusion and bullying — for both students with disabilities and general education students.
Every year they present for the Federal Bar, the State Bar of Arizona and at conferences in Arizona and around the country for advocates
“Every state has different nuances with how they deal with special education issues, but federal law is what dictates procedure and actionable items,” Hope said. “The rules are not ‘suggestions’ but rather mandates for public schools, including charter schools, to follow to insure that students with disabilities are receiving no less than that to which they are entitled.”
Yet challenges still remain regarding inclusion and a sense of belonging -- not only in the educational system but in the Jewish community as well, though both Hope and Lori point out that the Phoenix Jewish community stands above many others in recognizing the challenges of special education and the needs of students.
Working in this educational space requires constant and consistent championing of special education strides by attorneys who put compassion and understanding at the forefront when dealing with schools in the state. Those are the expectations the Kirsch sisters are trying to fulfill.
“Providing a strong learning environment only works when a legal system reinforces what is the right thing to do,” said Hope. “You can use the law to accomplish what is needed, but
you cannot mandate sensitivity to truly understand how this community
lives and what they need educationally to succeed.” JN
Barry Kluger is a Scottsdale communications executive.