Alumni Stories: Joanna Powell

The Consultative Attorney

Working for Oakland’s schools, Joanna Powell listens to people’s needs and tries her best to say “Yes”

May 2022

Joanna Powell (CPRL 2011-12) never shies away from a challenge. She runs half-marathons, owns a rescue dog, and served as managing editor of the NYU Review of Law & Social Change.

So, when Powell decided to teach after earning her undergraduate degree at Yale University, she signed on with Teach for America to lead a second grade, self-contained classroom in the Bronx for 32 children learning English as a second language. 

“I was teaching them all subjects except electives,” says Powell, now a Staff Attorney for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in California. “It was a very challenging and formative experience. There were some special education students, and all of the children were dealing with big challenges at school and in their lives. I felt that I did all I could, but there was so much that was beyond my control, and I worried for my students’ futures.”

Powell decided to go to law school to focus on education law and policy. She learned a lot about special education and school discipline—“areas where there are opportunities for lawyers to get involved in advocating for individual students’ needs”—but felt she wasn’t getting bigger-picture insights into making meaningful change in the education system. Then she learned about CPRL and became part of the first cohort of NYU students to attend the program.

Headsot of Joanna Powell, who is profiled in the article, with a quote that reads, “[At CPRL], we learned to think like consultants, focusing on the idea of partnering with and learning from the communities we were serving, and developing solutions together with them.”

“It was a great opportunity,” she recalls. “Lawyers often take the attitude of ‘We know best.’ They see their job as being to win the suit for their client, and they’re going to be very controlling and commanding about the strategy. But not at CPRL. In our student projects, we learned to think like consultants, focusing on the idea of partnering with and learning from the communities we were serving, and developing solutions together with them. That’s an approach I’ve applied ever since.”

As part of a year-long cohort at CPRL, Powell worked on two projects. 

In the first project, she assisted the New York City Department of Education in launching a new system for evaluating teachers based on student performance, with the goal of establishing more objective criteria.

“We were not in a position to influence how the evaluations would be done. Essentially, we worked on marketing the new system to teachers,” she explains. “There definitely were concerns [from teachers] about potential unfairness stemming from [them] being held accountable when so many other factors go into student performance. But overall, there was surprisingly little opposition, and I think that may have resulted from our working very hard to create focus groups that represented teachers from a wide range of schools and backgrounds. Our efforts helped communicate that the department valued teachers and wanted to celebrate their contributions.”

In her second project, Powell helped the New York City Leadership Academy design a system for evaluating the impact made by principals it had trained and supported. The Academy has supported thousands of leaders in more than 200 school systems and educational organizations across 37 states and Washington, D.C., focusing in particular on the use of culturally responsive leadership to dismantle systemic inequities in schools. Much of Powell’s work consisted of surveying other organizations with similar missions. It culminated in a summit at which she and her student colleagues presented their findings to many of these organizations.

“It was definitely an iterative process,” she says. “And the result was a model that came very much from the organizations themselves.”

After graduating from law school, Powell worked for several years in a law firm, serving as outside counsel to different school districts. She enjoyed the work, but says she “yearned to be part of the team and to do preventive work rather than just getting the call to put out the fire when something has gone really wrong.”   

With OUSD, she’s found the kind of role she was seeking     . 

“Now people in the district come to me and say, essentially, ‘We want to do something—can you help us in making it compliant?’ So it’s questions like, ‘Do we need to bid out this job?’ ‘Is it legally defensible for us to let go of this employee?’”

In other instances, she says, “I don’t feel like a lawyer at all.” For example, she was one of two COVID liaisons who designed the district’s contact tracing protocol. “I got involved initially to help ensure that we were correctly interpreting executive orders, and then it just spiraled into a bigger role for me.”

What she values most in each of these instances, Powell says, is the opportunity to make a positive impact on educational equity.

“We have to wrestle with questions like whether to let students do modified quarantines after they’ve been exposed to the virus, or whether to suspend or expel students for stuff they did on Zoom. With COVID, there’s always a balance to be struck between safety and kids being in school more, and I try to be a voice for keeping kids in school and taking the disciplinary step that’s least harsh.

“In general, when people ask, ‘Can we do this?’ I try very hard to find a way and say, ‘Yes,’ even if that means more work for me. But sometimes there simply is no way. We have to bid out this contract, because not bidding it out would be illegal and we’d get sued. And that’s a really unique role, as a lawyer, to have to say no. You need the confidence that comes from having built relationships with people. I’ve said yes to people enough times that they don’t hate me or just stop talking to me when I have to say no. And that’s part of the consulting style I learned at CPRL.”

In Their Own Words

Our alumni network now includes more than 500 leaders, advocates, and champions dedicated to improving school systems and other public sectors. Some alumni work directly with teachers, families, and students, ensuring access to high-quality education. Others work indirectly—supporting improvement from inside private sector organizations. In Their Own Words captures the many and varied ways our alumni lead and improve organizations in education and other public sectors.

About the Author

Joe Levine writes about education, law, science and medicine, and health care. His work has appeared in Time, LIFE, Money, Newsday, and many university magazines.