McClatchy High law academy emphasizes community connections

A tightly knit group of Sacramento students last week became the first to complete McClatchy High School’s Law and Public Policy Academy, a three-year curriculum that aims to bring greater gender and ethnic equity to the legal professions.

Specialized academies have grown popular in recent years as high school administrators explore new ways to prepare students for college or a career through small learning groups that emphasize industry connections, mentors and internships.

Fifty-five seniors completed the McClatchy program, during which they attended core classes together, such as history and social science. After three years, students grew well acquainted with one another on the 2,300-student campus in Land Park.

“Without the academy, I wouldn’t be with this group of people,” said Jenny Guan, 18, a graduating senior. “I would not even have law on my mind. The law academy pushed me to achieve.”

Guan said she is preparing to attend California State University, Sacramento, and will study business administration. Her goal, she said, is a career in criminal justice, possibly as an attorney.

The state Legislature authorized the California Partnership Academies 30 years ago after similar pilot programs showed success. In evaluations that followed, participating students had better attendance, earned better grades, collected more course credits and were less likely to leave high school than their comparable at-risk counterparts, according to a 2011 profile of the state program.

While school districts cut many programs during the recession, academies flourished. California Partnership Academies reported 141 of its 471 programs were established within the last five years.

California has hundreds of academies receiving state or foundation support for programs ranging from health and science to agriculture. They work with utility companies, growers and labor groups to give students real-world experience.

While McClatchy High has long attracted some of the city’s highest-achieving students with its rigorous Humanities and International Studies Program, the district’s largest campus sought small learning communities for more of its students. Before launching the Law and Public Policy Academy in 2011, the school opened a Criminal Justice Academy in 2009.

For the law program, students from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento teach sophomores in the academy for part of the year and prepare them for mock court competition, said teacher and academy coordinator Bennae Dillingham.

More advanced students can opt for summer internships and are paired with mentors from the legal community. “They manage to come up with 50 mentors,” Dillingham said.

Dillingham also meets regularly with other McClatchy teachers to coordinate how students’ core subjects might be merged with the academy’s law theme.

Last fall, the academy’s 10th grade English class read William Golding’s classic, “Lord of the Flies,” she said. In the history class, students used the classic novel – about the disintegration of social order among a group of boys stranded on an island – to discuss why laws are created.

Then, in the academy’s course on law and equity, students analyzed evidence from the novel “and put the characters of the book on trial,” Dillingham said.

McClatchy Principal Peter Lambert said the Law and Public Policy Academy seemed like a natural for the campus. The high school’s graduates include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, as well as other prominent judges and attorneys. There is strong support from members of the legal profession in neighborhoods around McClatchy High, Lambert said.

The McClatchy High law academy is one of just six in California started through a collaboration between the California Bar Association and California Partnership Academies.

The academies program provides McClatchy up to $70,200 a year, and the Sacramento City Unified School District matches that grant. The legal community also contributes, typically through in-kind contributions such as student teachers from McGeorge, mentors and participation in the school’s academy advisory committee, which meets monthly.

Sacramento City Unified’s Theresa McEwen oversees approaches such as the McClatchy law academy that are aimed at making sure students leave high school prepared for both college and career.

“We don’t want kids in high school to say, ‘I don’t need to take that rigorous math or English because I’m going to be a plumber or join the military,’ ” McEwen said. “That’s great and wonderful. But even if you go to a plumbing apprenticeship, they (employers) are going to want you to think critically and to solve problems.”

Julian Zivkovic, 17, said the McClatchy academy helped him fine-tune his vision for the future. He had long been interested in law because his grandfather has a patent law firm in Serbia and other family members are lawyers, he said.

His plan: Attend Sacramento City College for general education, the University of Maryland for a bachelor’s degree in business, the U.S. Army for its officers program and JAG Corps, then Georgetown Law School.

“One day I want to be a federal judge,” Zivkovic said. “I like to listen to debate instead of argue.”

McClatchy’s Criminal Justice Academy teaches some constitutional law and provides insight into how police officers do their jobs. The Sacramento Police Department provides much of the academy’s support, said coordinator and teacher John McCumiskey.

Sophomores visit a law enforcement communications center and see how dispatchers handle 911 calls, he said. Students also are exposed to non-sworn law enforcement jobs, including forensic science.

At Florin High School, about 190 students this year attended the Law Academy, which started five years ago.

“Ultimately, we want to expose students to the full gamut of legal careers out there,” said Carlos Garcia, the program’s coordinator. “We found out that, initially, students have a narrow concept of what’s available to them.”

Garcia said students also perform public service, coordinating Saturday legal clinics and recruiting lawyers for legal clinics on topics from immigration to family law. Bilingual students help translate.