Sonja Ralston Elder ’09

December 14, 2007Duke Law News

A passion for education led Sonja Ralston Elder to try her hand as a teacher ― and ultimately led her to law school.

After graduating from Texas Tech University with degrees in Spanish and Theatre Arts, Ralston Elder taught a bilingual first grade class for two years in Richmond, Calif., as a Teach for America volunteer. She describes the experience as both fulfilling and frustrating, and believes that certain problems are firmly rooted in laws that “frustrate the overarching purpose of education.”

California law, for example, requires all students who turn 6 by Dec. 1 of a given school year to be enrolled in first grade. This inflexibility doomed some to fail, says Ralston Elder, recalling children who had just arrived in the United States without any kindergarten pre-literacy experience in English or Spanish, and who simply couldn’t meet the first grade standardized goal of learning to read chapter books. “My curriculum didn’t meet their needs, and we couldn’t put them in kindergarten based on an assessment of their needs.

“I’m sure it was part of some legislator’s well-intentioned plan to get every child into school to [meet] ambitious expectations,” she adds, “but it was clearly written by someone who had never been to a low-income school and had never spoken to a first grade teacher.” Collective agreements, too, sometimes kept poor teachers in the classroom without offering incentives to other “amazingly talented” ones Ralston Elder worked with, she says.

Perceiving that her own talents lay in analytical thinking, oratory, and debate as opposed to teaching, she decided that she could best serve students and teachers through a career in education law. “We need people writing and interpreting and improving the laws who understand both the law and the realities of teaching,” she says.

Pursuing a master’s in public policy through Duke’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy as well as her JD, Ralston Elder has seized every opportunity to gain theoretical and practical training in education law, the latter through the Children’s Law Clinic. She published two scholarly pieces this year ― a note in the Duke Law Journal and an article in Educational Law and Policy Forum ― which focus on state educational legislation and school financing lawsuits.

She gained further practical training as a summer associate at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C., where she researched issues and wrote legal memoranda for K-12, higher education, tax, and regulatory practice groups, and at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, where she conducted public policy research on teacher retention. This fall, Ralston Elder organized a two-day symposium on recent Supreme Court decisions regarding school integration, which was co-sponsored by the Education Law and Policy Society, an organization she helped revive at Duke in the last academic year.

Ralston Elder doesn’t confine her activities at Duke to education law, however. Her list of achievements and activities seems impossibly long: Duke Law Journal articles editor; Moot Court Board secretary; Mock Trial Board member and multiple award winner; teaching assistant; Association of Law Students and Significant Others president; Duke Law Drama Society member and director of the spring 2007 production of The Laramie Project; Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program participant; and Admissions Council of Student Advisors member. She is helping to strengthen the American Constitution Society at Duke as a chapter board member, and at other law schools as one of the organization’s inaugural “National Next Generation Leaders.” And she has even established a Duke Law quilting circle!

Ralston Elder is also a Duke Law LEAD fellow, one of a select group of students who have demonstrated uncommon leadership and commitment to Duke Law during their first and second years of law school. As a LEAD fellow, she is charged with bringing her considerable experience to bear as she mentors a small group of first-year law students, offering guidance as needed and organizing monthly gatherings with the group to foster a sense of community and shared values.

“It has been great getting to meet all the new students, getting them excited about being a part of our community, and being able to pass on the values that I think make Duke Law as strong as it is,” Ralston Elder says. “As a small school, we have a fabulous opportunity to be a tight-knit community, and I think we capitalize on it well, particularly by fostering a sense of cooperation instead of competition.”

Whenever she thinks she has too much going on, Ralston Elder says she draws inspiration from her older brother, an outdoorsman, author, and motivational speaker. Aron Ralston gained international renown in 2003 when he amputated his arm to free himself after being pinned by a boulder for five days in a remote Utah canyon. But Ralston Elder is quick to point out that her long-standing admiration for him comes from a different source: “He has more energy than anyone. When I feel I can’t get something done because there aren’t enough hours in the day, I think, ‘What did Aron do today?’” It probably involved hiking a 14,000-foot Colorado peak before breakfast, she says with a laugh. “He quit his job as an engineer to do what he really loves, which I always thought was amazing. It takes a lot of courage to give up safety and security to follow your dreams.”