When uptown lawyers started to show up at school board meetings in Anacostia, offering their services free to parents in poor neighborhoods there, Willie Mae Mickel was immediately suspicious.
"I was really upset," said Mickel, whose grandson, Antonio, attends Turner Elementary School at Stanton Road and Alabama Avenue SE. So were the Turner school principal and many parents. "We didn't know what was happening.
"I wondered what do we need these lawyers for? We never heard tell of them before," Mickel remembered. The seemingly out-of-place lawyers said that each school in Far Southeast, where education is in constant battle with poverty, ought to have a lawyer, remembered Mickel, who is president of the Turner neighborhood school council.
That idea didn't impress Mickel either. Southeast parents had organized groups such as the neighborhood councils, to help them cope with delapidated school buildings, short supplies and shrinking budgets. And they didn't want any barristers in pinstripes, on a detour to the ghetto, telling them how to run their schools, she said.
Reluctantly, though, the parents agreed to give the lawyers a trial run. The lawyers, all volunteers from the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, were placed at 14 schools in Far Southeast. They set out to prove they were there to help.
Calling the program Public Education Legal Service Project, the lawyers in the schools took a decidedly different approach from the rest of the world's lawyers: They didn't want to file lawsuits. They didn't want to litigate, and they didn't want to go to court.
They wanted to solve problems, not create them.
Instead of filing lawsuits, the lawyers write letters, said project coordinator Cynthia Wilson. They write letters to parents, explaining their rights, and the lawyers write letters to city agencies and officials telling them what the parents are owed and that they intend to seek it.
When the project began in the fall of 1979, "The situation was, we could take it or leave it," Mickel said of the lawyers' advice.
The result, Mickel said, is "mostly we take it.
"Gradually, I felt the lawyer was here to help us, here to give us more strength. . . ."
Turner School's lawyer is Joseph M. Sellers, who by day practices law with the very uptown firm of Pierson, Ball and Dowd and by night and weekends coaches Turner School parents on their legal rights when it comes to their kids' education.
Sellers, 27, a graduate of ivy-League Brown University and Case Western Reserve law school, says one big achievement of his work with the parents over the past year is that it appears Turner School is finally going to get its cafeteria repaired.
"Everytime it rained the cafeteria flooded," Sellers said, washing debris -- including dead rats -- into the children's lunch room.A jurisidiction dispute with various District agencies blocked repairmen from coming around until Sellers and the parents got Mayor Marion Barry to stop by, accompanied by a reporter. Now that school is out for summer vacation, Sellers said, it appears repairs will get under way.
Most importantly, however, Sellers has taught Turner School parents how to be lobbyists. He has testified on Capitol Hill with them, trying to stop school budget cuts, which the parents say hit the poorest schools hardest because parents there can't make up the lost money.
"He didn't just tell us to go. Joe Sellers was at our side," Willie Mae Mickel said. "He didn't have to do all this." w
Sellers even went so far as to register with the clerks of the House and Senate as a lobbyist for Turner School, student population 682, kindergarten through sixth grade.
But the school-project lawyers aren't leaving all of school funding up to Congress. They've also set up a private fund, in which money raised by parents, at projects as humble as bake sales, will be matched by local businesses. Lawyers help school administrators handle their personnel problems, and they have helped get needed books and supplies.
When he makes a pitch for Turner School, Sellers regrets to say, it does make somewhat of a difference that he's a lawyer.
"For some reason, it helps to say 'Hello, I'm a lawyer from . . . ' it carries a certain amount of authority, whether its justified or not," Sellers said.
Sellers' profession also gives Turner School parents confidence in what he tells them about their legal rights, Sellers said, and together they can get through the maze of local laws they must understand to help their school effectively.
"In the time that we've had him, we have appreciated his loyalty," Mickel said of Sellers. "He has opened our eyes to some things. . . While we may have known about some things, he comes all the way, opening up the door more than we had." a
Roderick V.O. Boggs, the executive director of the Lawyers' Committee, says he is convinced efforts by people like Sellers and the Turner School parents on Capitol Hill helped get an extra $28 million into this year's public school budget.
Money's what counts, Boggs said. A lawyer can spend a lifetime suing the city school board, and the courts can issue order after order telling the schools what to do, but if the money isn't there, nothing gets done.