Last month, nine high school juniors presented their research on topics like animal testing by cosmetics brands and the addictive nature of fast food. Some shifted nervously as they looked at their notes, others cracked jokes as they answered questions from the audience.
Oral presentations take place every day in schools across the country. But these students weren’t in their classroom—they were in the courtroom of the George Washington University Law School, presenting to faculty and students as part of a partnership between their teacher and the law school’s Animal Legal Education Initiative.
The relationship between the Advanced Placement Seminar class at Coolidge High School in the District of Columbia and the law school program is in its early stages, but the results are promising, educators involved have said. The high school students feel more motivated because they feel their work is more meaningful. They’re also being exposed to college-level instruction and expectations, which their teacher hopes will ease their transition to college in a couple of years.
“It raises the stakes, the accountability for students,” said Jay Glassie, an English teacher at Coolidge. “We talk a lot about the academic conversation. This was, ‘You’re in literal conversation with the expert, and they’re treating you as part of the conversation—as a scholar, as a researcher.’ … They rise to the occasion, but it only happens when you have to be in conversation with an expert.”
The partnership began when Glassie sent a cold email to law school faculty last year. Glassie, who went to George Washington as an undergrad before earning his Ph.D. at the University of Southern Mississippi, was looking for a way to incorporate real-world project-based learning into his AP Seminar class, which Coolidge is offering for the first time this school year. AP Seminar, which was introduced nationally in 2014, is an interdisciplinary course focused on bolstering academic research and critical thinking skills.
“Our students were like, ‘We feel like we’re just filling out a lot of worksheets. We’re just taking a lot of tests. We’re going from classroom to classroom—we don’t feel like our work is always that meaningful,’” Glassie said.
He wanted students to engage in action research, meaning that they would be proposing solutions to issues that are actively happening in the community, alongside experts. Glassie has a personal interest in animal welfare, so George Washington’s Animal Legal Education Initiative, which launched last year, seemed like the right fit.
Fortuitously, the law faculty there were already planning on making partnerships with high schools and colleges part of their mission, both to promote their values of animal welfare and pave the way for more young people to consider law school.
“We didn’t think we’d be starting it right away,” said Kathy Hessler, the director of the Animal Legal Education Initiative and the assistant dean for animal legal education at George Washington’s law school. “We just got really lucky that Jay reached out to us.”
How the partnership has worked
In the fall, Hessler and another law professor visited Coolidge and spoke to the AP Seminar students about the Evigo breeding and research facility in Cumberland, Va., where nearly 4,000 beagles were rescued last summer after inspections revealed horrific conditions for the dogs and dozens of violations of federal regulations. One of the initial investigators came, too, as well as someone who adopted one of the rescued beagles. (That beagle also joined.)
The students were interested in the topic, Glassie said, but the format of the presentation—lecture-style, with no visual aids—was tough for them. They struggled to maintain attention.
“They [haven’t] had that experience of having someone with incredible expertise lecture at them, but that’s what it’s like in college,” he said, adding that it was good exposure for them to build their academic stamina.
Later in the semester, the students worked in teams of three to research a challenge in animal welfare. Each student wrote a report on a certain component of their research question, and then the teammates joined forces for a presentation in which they proposed solutions for the problem they researched. Those were the presentations that they gave at the law school.
The AP Seminar framework requires that students submit work throughout the year, including scores from their team research presentation. Glassie offered to let them do their presentations twice, so he could score the ones given in the privacy of their own classroom instead of the ones at the law school courtroom—but the students said they wanted “to do it all the way.”
That raised the stakes even more, Glassie said. And the students rose to the challenge. The audience asked them tough questions, including what they thought of potential solutions to the problems they had identified and what they concluded were the underlying reasons for these societal issues.
“The students had clearly spent a lot of time and energy and attention on their work, their findings, their talking points,” Hessler said. “It was refreshing to see how well some of the students were able to address some of the things they were asked.”
Of course, there was room for improvement: “They need to work on answering questions—internalize what someone’s asking and come up with a response,” Glassie said. “Even the strongest students didn’t get quite get there. … I think at this point, they’re probably getting wrapped up in their own heads thinking about what to say rather than responding to the question. It reminds you of what a hard skill that is.”
Having students practice in a real-world setting when they’re only juniors in high school will be good preparation for college, Glassie said.
Said Hessler: “I wish I had an opportunity to do this kind of presentation when I was in high school because it was so scary when I got to college.”
After the presentations, Yadira Ceron, 17, said she appreciated being able to experience what felt like a college-level course as a junior. She felt empowered to pursue her own academic interests—more than she typically does in high school.
“Normally in a classroom, they give you a prompt,” she said. “Here, I get to choose what I want to write about, how I want to write about it, and it’s just given me more freedom, rather than just sitting in a classroom. I get to go out and do hands-on projects in order to continue my writing.”
Going forward, Glassie and Hessler hope to think of additional ways they can work together. For instance, some of the law students might mentor the high schoolers. Glassie is also applying for a grant that would allow him to partner with the Animal Legal Education Initiative on a schoolwide curriculum reform that infuses sustainability and wellness into courses across subjects.
Reducing the barriers to college
When universities and K-12 schools work together, it can increase participating students’ odds of going to college, said Elizabeth Smith, an assistant professor of education at the University of Tulsa who studies school-university partnerships.
“Partnerships that connect faculty with students help students to see that faculty are people, and they’ll find people to encourage and support them when they go to college,” she said. “It lessens and reduces the barrier of seeing college as a place that’s scary or for someone else—especially for kids from low-income backgrounds or students of color when they’re approaching institutions that feel like they’re not made for them. It helps them see college as a place where they can be successful.”
There are also benefits for both K-12 teachers and university faculty, Smith said. High school teachers gain more of an understanding of what is being taught in college courses so they can better prepare their students, and college professors gain insight about the challenges of and opportunities for teaching the students who might be in their classrooms in a year or two.
University instructors also can learn about new teaching methods from their high school counterparts, Smith said: “As university faculty, we aren’t taught how to teach or even assess student learning, and our K-12 colleagues do that very well.”
Working with high school students was a good refresher for the legal faculty and students, Hessler said.
“It’s always useful to reframe legal concepts in ways that are really accessible to people,” she said. “We tend, as lawyers and legal academics, to speak our own language, which makes the concepts [and] the distribution of this information a little less accessible.”
To that end, she said the Animal Legal Education Initiative plans to create and publish resources—including case descriptions and legal definitions—for high school teachers across the country to use with their students.
Meanwhile, for K-12 teachers who want to pursue a partnership with a university near them, Smith recommends going through the colleges of education. The faculty there can help make connections with other departments: “They can be a broker in some ways for that relationship,” she said.
Glassie’s advice? Go for it.
“I think higher education is really seeing that these opportunities are important,” he said. “They’re as eager to do it as I think the K-12 side is.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as This High School Class Partnered With a Law School Program. Here’s What Both Learned