If potential juror Ruby Jones thought she might escape a dreaded but important civic duty, she was in for a rude awakening after she appeared before Judge Jenna “Jenny” McKechnie
After taking questions from two sets of “attorneys” in the High School in the Community’s new courtroom, she discovered her number was up.
Jones, pretending to be a 24-year-old woman who enjoys the occasional glass of wine, was selected for mock jury duty Wednesday during a dedication of the school’s new courtroom.
HSC students like Jones and McKechnie, teachers and administrators came together to dedicate the courtroom.
The construction of the courtroom was possible thanks to a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Education’s Commissioner’s Network. Decked out with a juror box, tables for acting attorney, a high-rise platform for the judge and witness stands, the courtroom is designed to help the school engage students with the magnet school’s law and social justice themes.
It’s a big deal for students like Sophia Yanza Rivera, a sophomore at HSC who served as one of the defense attorneys Wednesday along with fellow student Allison Diana during the mock jury selection. Rivera wants to be a lawyer when she grows up and hopes to attend NYU. She also participates in Project Youth Court, a not-for-profit organization that trains teen volunteers to try and adjudicate juvenile offenses, along with a mock trial class taught at HSC. She said it’s been good training for the career she wants to pursue. She also said the Youth Court process gives her fellow students second chances that they might not ordinarily be afforded.
“I’m proud to be a part of it,” she said.
So is her mock trial teacher Jack Stacey, a teacher at HSC for 13 years. Though he’s not trained in the law, he said, he was afforded the chance to take over the class last year, just as he’s been allowed to teach a class about the Vietnam War and the 1960s.
“What makes this school so special is that it is one of the only places where people are constantly asking is there something that you want to get involved in,” he said. “Is there something that you’re passionate about that you want to create a curriculum, around and put that forward.”
HSC Building Leader Matt Brown said the school tries to live up to its tagline of being “a small school for students who want to do big things” by believing strongly in the power of student voices.
“If a student says, ‘I have an idea…’ We say, ‘Yes, let’s make that happen,’” he said.
Brown said the court will serve as teaching and learning space where the school will continue to formalize its law and social justice education. It will also be a common community space.
HSC is a state-supported “turnaround” school. It has seen a 10 percent decrease in chronic absenteeism and suspension. It has also increased promotion from 9th grade to 10th grade from 55 percent to 85 percent, according to the district.
Iris White, astate Department of Education Turnaround Office consultant, said she’s done focus groups at HSC. The students talked about how they feel they belong at the school, free to express themselves and encouraged. HSC feels like family, she observed.
“The work of turnaround is hard, and you don’t always see the results right away,” she said. “Sometimes it can be very demoralizing. But I do talk about the work being done in New Haven quite a bit because I want them to understand while work is hard there are great benefits.
“I do encourage other schools to come to New Haven and see what’s going on here because they need to open their eyes and see possibilities when you have a great team, when you believe in your team and there is collaboration, and when you believe in the students and you believe in the community,” White added. “I think HSC is great example of that.”
In addition to increasing attendance and promotion rates, outgoing Superintendent Garth Harries said, HSC has seen a 100-point improvement in its SAT scores.
“It’s not just about nice spaces and interesting learning,” he said of the new courtroom. “It’s about results for students. Educating, preparing students for college, career and life is the heart of turnaround agenda—work this district has done.”
Harries, who holds a law degree, said mock trials are good preparation not only for being in courtrooms, but also for sitting before a board of education.
“You learn to read, you learn to think, you learn to engage the community, you learn to care about the issues,” he said. “So whichever side it is, whether it’s the social justice side or the law side, these questions are about how do we come together as a community, as a society to work together to fulfill our individual and collective goals?
“The fact that restorative justice is part of what happens and will happen in this courtroom brings me great joy because I think that is extraordinarily important and an extraordinary part of the social compact that sits behind the law and the way we educate students,” he added. “So this will be a great space for engagement of students to carry on for many years.”