November 19, 2019 Voices

A Classroom Education

By Ruthe Catolico Ashley

I received the call midmorning on a beautiful fall day in 2012. The principal of one of our six original high school law academies had bad news. That morning, the history teacher who had taken over the law class had quit. He refused to take over a class that took too much in preparation on top of his full load of history classes. The principal asked if I would consider stepping in to teach the class.

Let’s step back for some background. In 2010, I received an offer of six uncontested grants to build the first six high school law academies in California. These grants were part of the California Partnership Academy (CPA) model that was created by the California Legislature in 1984 as a three-year program (grades 10 through 12) structured as a “school-within a school.” Academies incorporate academic and career technical education, business partnerships, mentoring, and internships. One of the requirements for program participation included that at least 50 percent of the students be “at risk” and that high schools have at least 350 students in attendance. These two requirements produced classrooms that were more than half students of color.

At that time, the State Bar of California (Bar) was looking for a “boots on the ground” project to have direct impact on diversity in the legal profession. This educational model was a perfect fit for the legal profession in California to be directly involved with the future of the profession. The Bar eagerly accepted the offer and we set off to build the first six law academies, opening our doors for our first classes in fall 2011.

With a fool’s confidence, I accepted the job offer at De Anza High School Law Academy in Richmond, California. I knew I could teach the substantive part of law academy and was assured I would be fine in the classroom. All I needed was a Career Technical Education Certificate. Within weeks, I was ready to step into the classroom. Or so I thought.

Armed with a smile and eager to get to know the students, I stood at the door of the classroom waiting for my first students. I was scheduled to teach four classes—two 10th-grade and two 11th-grade classes averaging 33 students per class.

My first inclination: This was not going to be easy, as the students filed past me. Few made eye contact, few said hello, many had earbuds in, and they proceeded to congregate in groups chatting and eating snacks. I was coming in after three weeks of substitute teachers and had no clue what would happen in the next few months. This would turn out to be my toughest job ever.

My early confidence faded quickly, and I learned trust does not come easily. These students were used to people coming and going. Why would I be any different? I decided that I would fight to stay and that I could not and would not leave.

Every afternoon, I would drive home exhausted and defeated. My last class of the day had students who could have easily been sent to detention on a regular basis. Instead of teaching, more disciplining—and yes, yelling—occurred. I wondered if I could survive the year.

Then slowly, change started to happen. Students started standing up for me and getting the other students to listen. A change in classroom seating into a law school classroom style engaged more students. I stayed up nights learning names and shared leadership with newly elected officers. A field trip to the Supreme Court and a talk with the chief justice awed and inspired them. Some had never crossed a bridge before that trip into San Francisco. Friends came to speak and do oral arguments for the students. It was an election year, and law academy students gave a comprehensive election program to the entire school—some for the first time had to deal with a fear of public speaking. We created a mock trial team and competed in the regionals.

By the end of the year, I was exhausted, but not defeated. This turned out to be the most rewarding experience of my life. I am in contact with many of the students still and am so proud of those who are finishing undergraduate degrees and are either entering or are in law school. These students taught me more than I taught them—and I will remember and love them forever.

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By Ruthe Catolico Ashley

In retirement, Ruthe Catolico Ashley, Executive Director Emeritus of California LAW, continues her passion work of building a diversity pipeline into the law.