By Mike Marsee
Michael Tackett’s courtroom and his classroom are now one and the same.
Tackett, a practicing attorney who turned to teaching, has a classroom that contains a working courtroom more advanced than many of those in Kentucky’s courthouses.
It’s the centerpiece of a three-classroom unit in the Law and Justice Village at Scott County’s Elkhorn Crossing School, which is designed to introduce students to career opportunities involving various aspects of government and the legal system.
Students learn the roles of attorneys, judges and jurors and study topics such as law enforcement, criminal investigation and public service as they examine cases from initial hearing through final sentencing. There are also English and social studies classes tailored to the law and justice career pathway.
And they make good use of the courtroom that takes up one side of Tackett’s oversize classroom.
“We use the courtroom for everything from presentations, just to have a nice, formal setting, all the way to mock trials and moot court sessions,” Tackett said. “Not only will I use it, but we’ll collaborate for the other teachers to use it as well for whatever they may be doing.”
Court isn’t in session every day at the Law and Justice Village, one of six villages at the school offering project-based curricula, and not all of the 130 or so students in the classes will become trial lawyers or judges, but the skills they learn in the courtroom and the classroom can help prepare them for those jobs or for careers in related fields.
This is the second year for the Law and Justice Village, which was created after surveying Scott County students about what they would like the focus of a new village to be. Social studies teacher Andrew Burgoon said he can see why so many students were interested in law and justice.
“It’s the reason why they make so many TV programs about it. It’s human drama. Everybody likes a good detective story, trying to figure out what the truth is,” Burgoon said. “We spend a lot of time on what is truth, what is justice, what are the definitions of these words? Things like fairness and justice are words that teenagers have a very keen sense of.”
Law and justice is the core career class, while Burgoon teaches government, U.S. history and world civilization and Kathy Owens teaches English classes that tie into the law and justice curriculum.
Burgoon and Owens worked together at the Scott County Ninth Grade Center before the village was created, combining to team-teach a course, and both of them said they liked the idea of the village.
“I loved the collaboration, the integration of our content, working with another teacher, and this village in particular seemed like it was right in my wheelhouse,” Owens said. “What I love most is the collaboration between the three teachers. I’ve got to teach skills in my class, but it’s easy to work in the content as I’m teaching the skills that I have to teach in English.”
“And it’s more fun because you have kids who are interested in the area and you can target that interest.”
Tackett earned a master’s degree in secondary education while maintaining his own law practice in Georgetown about a year before the Law and Justice Village was created.
“It’s a perfect fit. I can still deal with the law, I get to teach it and I get to teach it with high school students,” he said. “We’re not going to go to law school level with them, but I delve into certain aspects.”
In a recent class, Tackett was introducing the IRAC methodology (issue, rule, application and conclusion) commonly used in hypothetical questions in law school and on bar exams but seldom taught at the high school or college levels.
Burgoon said he has heard of stand-alone classes such as constitutional law or criminal justice at other schools, but he hasn’t heard of a program like this.
“I don’t think there are too many others out there. As far as I know, when we started, we were the only one that was career/tech, half-day, integrating all aspects of law and justice,” he said.
That has attracted students with varied interests.
“Because of the three classes, it’s different things,” Tackett said. “I think it’s an overriding interest in law, government, politics, public service. And then, obviously, some of them like the literature that Ms. Owens teachers; she adapts things differently with kind of a law-and-justice theme to things.”
The career aspirations of students in the village run the gamut, too. Some want to be investigators, police officers, trial lawyers or corporate lawyers, and some are aiming for public office, perhaps even to become president of the United States.
“Some kids want to be elected officials, and if you look at the makeup of the legislature, the people who make laws, chances are they’ve got a law degree,” Burgoon said. “And some kids are interested in going into business, so it’s a pretty broad spectrum we try to hit.”
Lively discussions are part of every class, to the enjoyment of students and teachers alike.
“Something I’ve found in the village is that it sparks a lot of debate,” junior Amanda Johnston said.
“The kids who choose to come over here are motivated to be here,” Owens said. “It might look similar to other classes, but the engagement level is different than in a class where ‘I’ve gotta take English.’ It’s wonderful for a teacher.”
No matter what the students are engaged in, they have a great deal of support from outside the school. Every judge serving in Scott County serves on the village’s advisory council, and representatives of the county attorney’s office and the local police and sheriff’s offices as well as private practitioners also led their expertise.
“It’s great to have the professionals come in and speak to the students and demonstrate different things and judge them and give them feedback on what they thought was good and what they thought they could improve,” Tackett said. “All of our judges are consistently blown away by the level that our students are participating at. Public speaking, research, critical thinking are not usually high choices on things that high school students want to throw themselves into, and public speaking is a big aspect of our whole village. They do really well with it; even our freshmen have done really well.”
“I already know it’s helping. Some of our juniors from last year that are now seniors have said that doing that presentation with us helped them with their college interviews or helped them with their job interviews at McDonald’s or the mall, because they can speak intelligently and professionally. And that’s what employers want. If you can speak and you can engage somebody, you’re going to move up no matter what career that you’re in, because employers pick up on that quickly.”
Johnston said she has learned that lesson.
“I interviewed for a job as a camp counselor, and without all the communication skills and debate skills and presentation skills, I wouldn’t have done as well,” she said.
Owens said students learn other critical career skills in the village, too.
“There’s a lot of soft skills that generally you don’t get, like when we have our community members who are in a profession come in and students have to learn how to dress, how to look somebody in the eye and shake their hand, how to have a professional conversation, all of those sorts of soft skills that you just don’t have the opportunity to get in a traditional classroom,” she said.
In the courtroom, students might initially act out a scripted trial, perhaps one from a literary work such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Crucible” that might have been studied in Owens’ class. As the class proceeds, they move on to mock trials that might be heard by a sitting judge.
“We usually start everybody off with heavily scripted ones, just like reading for a play, and then we move on into them developing their own roles and their own questions. We start out easy and then work up to where they prepare everything,” Tackett said.
Junior Asha McWilliams said that can be fun but also extremely challenging.
“The hardest part would definitely be breaking down case files. They can be anywhere from 20 to 100 pages or more,” McWilliams said. “Once you understand case files, you can start breaking down your argument. It’s fun.”
“We all like to debate and argue, and the mock trial definitely brings that out in all of us,” junior Savannah Lambert added.
The courtroom is also used for teen court, a juvenile court program coordinated by Tackett that offers juvenile defendants an alternative sentencing program. It’s an extracurricular activity for students in the Law and Justice Village and in the county’s other secondary schools who are trained to represent those defendants.
“We train them over the fall semester, and then in the spring semester we have actual juvenile sentencing trials,” Tackett said.
Those trials are held in an authentic-looking courtroom that is outfitted with the latest video technology.
“It’s a 21st-century courtroom,” Tackett said. “There are courtrooms across the country that have this level of technology, but here in Central Kentucky, very few. I never practiced in any, and the judges that come out and help us out and advise us, they love it. They’re always jealous when they come out here.”
Tackett still practices law “for family and friends,” but he said he is more at home in this courtroom.
“I’ve got 130 clients five days a week,” he said, pointing to his students. “These are my clients.”
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