As the granddaughter, daughter, and sister of teachers, Kim Sweet broke the mold by studying law. But it seems that the education bug never left her blood. As the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), Sweet has made a career out of helping city students get a quality education that meets their needs.
“If you think of all the 1.1 million schoolchildren in New York City in three groups—the ones who will succeed no matter what their schools do; the ones who need a little extra help to succeed; and the ones who won’t succeed unless they get a whole lot of help—it’s the third group that really motivates me and that drives AFC’s work,” Sweet says. From immigrants to low-income students to those with special needs, AFC helps children and families by offering free legal advice and representation, informing them of their rights through workshops, advocating for policy changes, and, when necessary, taking legal action to get kids the behavioral and learning accommodations they need.
In addition to her work with AFC, Sweet also founded the ARiSE Coalition (Action for Reform in Special Education), an organization which she calls a great complement to AFC. The organization works to reform policies and make schools more accessible—both physically and academically—for special-needs students. They collaborate with a growing list of partners that currently include the United Federation of Teachers, the Mental Health Association of New York, and Parent to Parent of New York State.
Sweet admits that her work as a children’s education advocate found her more than she found it. Prior to working at AFC, she spent 10 years at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, where her initial case assignments involved children’s education. From working on these cases, she discovered her passion for giving a voice to children and families who were not always supported by the education system and became the organization’s leader in special education advocacy work. When the job of executive director of AFC opened up in 2007, she jumped at the chance to further immerse herself in this work.
The mother of two says being a working parent has only “intensified” her passion for the cause and gives her the all-important parental perspective. “Becoming a parent made me much more keenly aware of the competing demands on parents’ time. Parents are juggling childcare along with jobs, families, and other issues,” she says. And that’s exactly why her work is so important. “When a child is having trouble in school, it’s one more very stressful thing that a parent has to deal with—and sometimes it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Though Kim originally hails from Massachusetts, she loves raising her family in the city and has come to think of herself as a New Yorker. She laughs as she confesses that her favorite part about city life is definitely not the small living spaces, but she’s quick to enthuse about how much her family enjoys visiting NYC’s parks, especially Central Park and Riverside Park.
Kim hopes that her children are proud of the work she does and that they’ll learn the value of giving back. But, even more importantly, Kim wants her kids to understand her passion. “I hope that my children see how much my work means to me and grow up to do something just as meaningful,” she says.