January 3, 2013
The students in Kristen Almquist’s Law and Public Policy (LPP) program have a complex relationship with issues of justice and equality. Alongside the familiar pressures of adolescence, many of them have confronted the stress of poverty or the sting of a family member lost to the criminal justice system. Authentic experiences—positive and negative, fair and unfair—color classroom conversations.
But these seniors at Chelsea (Mass.) High School do not expect to discuss these issues with people in positions of power during the school day. So it was a special occasion when, at a school forum about bullying and school safety last December, community leaders, police officers, and social workers sat and listened to what these 18 year olds had to say.
The idea for a school forum came from EDC’s innovative Law and Justice curriculum, the foundation of Chelsea’s LPP program. In more than 15 districts around the country, Law and Justice is helping students learn about law, social justice, and what it means to be a citizen.
“I think the forum was a huge growth moment for the students,” says Almquist. “It was adults in the community looking at them as adults, not as kids.”
Soon afterward, Chelsea High School’s “Respect Week” was born. And many of the students who attended the forum found themselves working on anti-bullying campaigns in the city’s middle schools.
EDC’s Eliza Fabillar and Jessica Juliuson are pleased to hear about the program’s success with students.
“I think the curriculum enables students to see that they are active agents in a democratic society,” says Fabillar, who directed the development of Law and Justice. “There’s a rule of law, and there’s a way to change laws that are not working.”
Funded through the James Irvine Foundation and developed with input from educators, legal professionals, postsecondary faculty, and partner organizations, the Law and Justice curriculum consists of two year-long programs: Foundations in Law and Foundations in Criminal Justice. Lessons on fundamental concepts in the legal system—such as how laws are passed, enforced, and changed—are punctuated by unit projects that require students to both build academic skills and challenge each other. In addition to holding a community forum on public safety, students write persuasive letters, create advocacy campaigns, lead mock trials, and hold debates.
The curriculum ultimately seeks to boost student achievement through improving critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. Juliuson, one of the authors of the materials, believes that looking at issues through the lens of law may appeal to students who have become disenchanted by standard high school offerings.
“We think that implementing this curriculum could reduce performance gaps for at-risk students, students who haven’t been in school, and students who are not engaged,” she says.
But there is a more practical aspect as well. The curriculum educates students about what it takes to pursue careers in law, advocacy, and criminal justice, giving them a compelling option as they consider what path to take after high school.
This aspect of the curriculum appealed to Kariana Sipple, who graduated from Chelsea’s LPP program last year.
“The program broadened my horizons as I thought about what to do in the future,” she says. Now a freshman at Denison University in Ohio, she is considering a career in forensic science.
Sipple also credits the Law and Justice materials for pushing her—and her peers—to think deeply about issues of morality and justice. She says that these conversations have stuck with her and influence how she thinks about political events she sees on the evening news.
She remembers one heated class discussion about a complicated legal topic: whether a court of law should treat companies as individuals. She found herself on the opposite side of the issue from her cousin, who was also enrolled in LPP.
“It was interesting to test ourselves to find out what we thought was right,” she says.
At Chelsea High School, the curriculum is part of the LPP program’s interdisciplinary alternative pathway to graduation for seniors. In math class, students see how surveys, data, and statistical interpretation impact the formation of new laws. And in English class, they learn how to write persuasively, using facts to back up their opinions.
The context-based approach seems to be working. Last year, 94 percent of students in LPP graduated, well above the school’s four-year graduation rate of 54.6 percent. Forty-four seniors are enrolled in the program this year.
Students are motivated to succeed—and they have taken a real interest in the law.
“A lot of the kids have taken advantage of what they have learned and are going into criminal justice programs in various school systems,” says Almquist. “And even if they are not interested in criminal justice as a career, they are interested enough in the materials to come to school.”