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Rights, Responsibilities and Realities

Monday, September 25, 2006 at 4:14 PM

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Reading and math scores are generally the first measure of student success, and what we hear about most. But area legal professionals are bringing social studies to the fore with a new program this year in the Cleveland schools. Over 700 lawyers, judges, and law students will be visiting 10th grade social studies classes across the district to teach the constitution and mentor inner-city students. ideastream's Lisa Ann Pinkerton reports.

In a 10th grade social studies class at East Tech High School, Mike Hefernin is about to give his first lesson. But he’s not a teacher, he’s the Chief Judicial Staff Attorney for the Cleveland Common Pleas Court.

Mike Hefernin: We’re going to be your personal trainers for the next five months…

Hefernin is one of 720 volunteer lawyers visiting 10th grade social studies classrooms around Cleveland today and once every month for the rest of the school year. The effort is called the 3 R’s - which stands for Rights, Responsibilities and Realities. Originator and Cleveland Bar Association President, Hugh McKay says he hopes the program will benefit the students in three ways.

Hugh McKay: One to help the students pass the OGT exam. Two give the students a much better appreciation of the constitution and the legal system and three and perhaps most importantly to course the student on their futures and careers.

Cleveland students fared poorly on the Ohio Graduation Test, last year, missing the state’s expectations by 25%. Questions on the OGT have changed in the recent years, from asking names and dates, to challenging students to contemplate what they’ve learned. Anthony Simeioni teaches American History and Government at East Tech and he says the concepts these students are exploring are well-aligned with the OGT.

Anthony Simeioni: They’re going to get core knowledge of what the amendments are, certain court cases that are impacted by these amendments and their also going to get a chance to express themselves and think critically… less rote, more what does all this stuff mean?

To do that, the Cleveland Bar Association has grouped lawyer volunteers into teams of six who first introduce the classes to the day’s topic, things like the first amendment, equal protection, or due process. Then they divide the class into groups for further discussion. This sets up opportunities for the second aspect of the program, mentoring. Simeioni says although his students are already being pushed to go to college and be successful by people in their personal lives, when strangers from the community encourage them it reinforces the message.

Anthony Simeioni: Just letting each student know that there are more people that care about you, more than maybe you even realize. There are more people pulling for you then you know you can even imagine… saying ‘hey, it’s there for you, go for it.’

Lawyer and 3 R’s Volunteer Natalie Peterson agrees. She graduated from Cleveland’s John Marshall High School in the 80s and she remembers fondly the days professionals visited her classes.

Natalie Peterson: I think that it broadened our worlds. Because I often wouldn’t even have thought about the possibility that I could do something. I remember engineers from NASA coming in and thinking ‘I could be an engineer.’ And when no one in your family’s gone to college you don’t really think of all the careers available to you as you might otherwise.

Cleveland Bar Association President Hugh McKay says while that kind of inspiration is crucial, he hopes the volunteer lawyers will be able to offer down to earth advice about college and careers. Specific advice their guidance counselors may not be giving.

Hugh McKay: The ratio of mentor and counselors in the schools is like between 5 and 601 to one. So these very talented students are very hard pressed to find time with a counselor and in many instances they are not receiving guidance on their futures.

The 3 R’s program will continue visiting Cleveland High Schools every month for the rest of the school year. And perhaps this time next year, McKay hopes the fields of health care and financial services will be inspired to broaden the scope of the program. Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.

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