Ashley VanCleef has knowledge about special education from all sides. She’s taught special education and worked in special education compliance in several public school systems. But she’s always been most dedicated to helping the parents of children with special needs, which led her to working at private practices.
In March, VanCleef opened an office for her own independent law firm, Law for Parents. The office, which is located on East Street in Shab Row, is welcoming and inviting, with vintage details and charm. That’s on purpose.
VanCleef works with parents who need help regarding their children’s educational needs, and she wants to help ease their stress.
“Our hope was to have a space here where they could come in, they could feel comfortable ... where we could really get them to a place where they could talk and feel comfortable and we could really brainstorm on how we could help their kiddo,” VanCleef said.
VanCleef largely works with parents who need help with their child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), which can be daunting and confusing for those who are not familiar. Oftentimes, parents want to make changes or request additional programming, such as speech or reading services.
Occasionally, VanCleef works on cases regarding discipline of students that parents do not deem fair or justified, as well as helping parents transition their child from one school to another.
She takes an approach of collaboration with the school system, especially since she knows what it’s like being on the other side.
“My grandma always said, you get more with honey than you do vinegar,” she said. “I’d rather work with people and build that relationship and try to — all of us — work toward the same end, than to try to go in and be adversarial with the school team.”
VanCleef can’t say she wants her practice to grow — because she doesn’t want parents to continue to face issues with schools and teachers — but she wants people to know that she’s available to them when they do need help.
VanCleef’s office is open, and has been for most of the pandemic, as law firms are deemed essential businesses. She has a set up with a large screen, camera and microphone so that she and her clients can virtually enter hearings, often on Google Meets.
The office has been busy with questions from parents during virtual learning, especially since school has started up again. While virtual learning is certainly more structured now than it was last spring, there are still a variety of concerns and questions for parents.
“For some of our students who really need the structure and consistency of being in school, especially some of our students with autism, they’re really struggling,” VanCleef said. “And their parents are just desperate, and they’re saying, ‘What can we do?’”
The payoff, for VanCleef, is to be able to help the families and be a part of their lives. Not only does she want to work as their lawyer, but also as an advocate and friend.
She’s been to graduations and sporting events of the students she’s helped. The parents often tell her their child would not have gone so far without her.
“I get those kind of messages from my clients all the time, and I always say to them, I hope you don’t need me. You should never have to need me. But I’m happy that I can be here whenever you do,” VanCleef said.