Link to the law puts spark in the school day

A courtroom is rising in the old band room at Hirsch Metropolitan High School in Chicago. The lockers where instruments were stored have been pulled out, and in one corner of the newly sanded floor, outlines for the judge's bench and jury box have been laid.

Teacher Richard Murray picks his way through the construction site, pointing out where opposing counsel will stand to make their arguments.

"We are so excited that we're going to have our own law-academy room," says one of his plaintiff's attorneys, Portia Berry, a teen sporting jeans, a head scarf, and silver hoop earrings.

They may not be wearing traditional attire for attorneys, but the 21 members of Hirsch's Law and Public Safety Academy are outfitted with far more self-assurance than the average ninth-grader.

That confidence is one of the new academy's first tangible results, says Mr. Murray, Hirsch's academy coordinator.

Most students in the four Chicago schools that house these law academies are from low-income families, and college is not an automatic next step. But the partners behind the one-year-old program - including the Chicago Police Department - hope the intimate learning environment of these school-within-a-school initiatives will provide a springboard to academic aspiration and success.

Studies show that "small schools and academies can almost totally mitigate the effects of poverty," says Michael Klonsky, head of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "Students can achieve at the same levels."

At the Chicago academies, each teacher incorporates issues of law into his or her classes. An English unit on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, for example, asks the students to figure out what criminal charges would be brought against the protagonist. (The narrator of "The Cask of Amantillado," for instance, isn't likely to get off with manslaughter, given the premeditation involved in walling someone into an airless brick chamber.)

The math teacher at Hirsch had his students learn statistics by figuring out the racial makeup of the state and federal prison populations. Biology students learn how to use fingerprinting and toxicology kits, as well as how to analyze hair samples.

These practical, hands-on elements of the curriculum are important in capturing teens' attention, educators say.

"The key to it is ... to focus on a theme; it doesn't matter much what it is," says Betty Despenza Green, a former Chicago principal who converted her school into eight vocational academies and who now helps schools nationwide establish similar programs. "The real purpose is tapping into students' interests ... to get them interested in school." As it is, she says, many kids "don't know why they're taking the courses they're taking."

High standards, small settings

During the 1990s, the number of academies with a vocational bent - whether firefighting, health, or hotel services - grew as high schools with thousands of students looked for ways to provide individualized teaching, instead of herding masses of teenage humanity. There are now about 300 law-based academies in American high schools. A number of cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, and Sarasota, Fla., have mandated that such academies be made available, says Mr. Klonsky. And some 1,500 US high schools applied for related funding under a recent federal initiative.

The reason for the growth is simple, academy advocates say. By having smaller classes, and assigning students the same teachers for all four years, they are able to provide a high quality education for a range of students, not just those who rank in the top 10 percent of their class. At Hirsch and Calumet High School, for instance, a number of top students are enrolled in the Law and Public Safety Academies, but interested students don't have to have the best grades to qualify; attendance, behavior, and motivation are also considered.

These smaller academies are also carried along by the tide of the "standards" movement, because participating students are all expected to be able to do demanding work, and aren't shunted off to lower tracks. "Why don't we expect that all children can reach the same set of high standards?" Dr. Green asks.

The potential benefits are not only for students, but for law-enforcement officials as well, says Joseph Coffee, head of the National Partnership for Careers in Public Safety and Security. "In large cities especially, [police departments] have recruiting problems," he points out. The academies let them train potential cadets from an early age, and help students avoid getting a police record that would bar them from the force.

They also serve a "community relations" function, Mr. Coffee says. Law- enforcement officers "often have a problem with certain segments of the community, particularly minorities.... By working with kids at a young age, law-enforcement agencies can show a different side...."

Teens, cops, and ... hugs

Alan Wilks, a police officer who works full time teaching Hirsch academy students about the law, echoes that belief.

If nothing else, he says, he hopes the four-year program will teach teens that an "officer is not just a badge and gun out to harass them.... To see the law and law enforcement as positive things may keep kids out of trouble, no matter what they choose to do [as a profession]."

Andre Blackman, a Hirsch student who introduces himself as "the top attorney," says he didn't trust the police before entering the program this fall. It's a sentiment shared by many of his fellow students, who are all African-American. As a testament to how their attitudes have shifted, kids come up to Wilks in the halls for hugs. And his counterpart at Calumet, Officer Paul Chester, was nominated for teacher of the year - in his inaugural year of classroom work.

Despite joking that they get tired of seeing one another's faces all day, it's clear that teens at both schools regard their teams of instructors as more than teachers.

"They're like our mother and father," says Calumet student Dartavous Dorsey, of Officer Chester and program coordinator Jacqueline Patterson. "Well, except they're not married."

Certainly, with graduation three years off, it's too early for Chicago's academies to start calculating their success rates. Early signs are mixed. Calumet has lost five of its 28 students as a result of discipline problems.

But Ms. Patterson says she also has students who were making C's and D's before they started in the academy and now have report cards full of A's and B's.

They can take heart from other schools' experiences. Green says that within months of installing the academies at her Chicago Vocational Career Academy, the number of students failing one or more subjects dropped to 9 percent from 50 percent, and the number of suspensions based on disorderly conduct dropped 78 percent.

But on a Wednesday a few weeks ago, the students were less concerned about the statistical likelihood of academic success than they were about the the witness testimony, legal briefs, and closing statements they were preparing for a mock-trial competition. The legal jousting match, students almost universally agreed, was the most exciting thing to hit a school year that's included visits from FBI agents and a trip to local courts, where they got to shadow judges and public defenders.

That Saturday, teams from each school went head to head in a civil case, James Daniels vs. Officer Janice Williams. Or, as attorney for the defense Montriece Wade put it, "a case about the police not using excessive force."

Hirsch walked away with the top honors, and Montriece and Portia were named outstanding attorneys. To the victors went a pizza party - not quite the same as billable hours, but a lawyer's got to start somewhere.

E-mail zippy@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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