Booker Law Academy stimulates young minds
‘Our kids are better prepared to compete against their peers in a multitude of ways’
By Jim Ash
In a tiny Southwest Florida corner of the legal universe, a high-energy voluntary bar association is hoping to transform a magnet school into a galactic incubator, a place where stars are born.
Powered mostly by the school district and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Sarasota County Bar Association, the Booker Law Academy, within Booker High School, has been teaching constitutional law, business law, court procedures, critical thinking, research, and law enforcement operations to select high school students since 2013.
After initial growing pains — the academy is on its third coordinator and enrollment has been uneven — the student population has soared from 30 to 103, prompting the Booker Law Academy Mentor Program to issue an urgent all-hands-on-deck.
Academy administrators hope to recruit more than 70 permanent mentors within the next year.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a mass call for volunteers like this,” said committee member and 12th Circuit Chief Judge Charles Williams. “We’re hopeful to have as many as possible because having the mentors is very important, especially at that age, when students are trying to decide on a career.”
Careers, and diversifying Southwest Florida’s professional profile, is what Booker Law Academy is all about. Boasting the region’s only dedicated mock trial facility, the four-year academy has set a minimum 2.0 GPA for admission and requires a 2.5 GPA to remain in good standing. No student can fall below 75 percent in any class.
In addition to mastering the rigorous course requirements, all students must perform 40 hours of community service annually. Booker Law Academy seniors serve professional internships, usually with local law firms, the state attorney, public defender, or local law enforcement agencies.
“I make it pretty clear to parents and students alike that we are not a law school and we don’t bill ourselves as such,” says Booker Law Academy Coordinator Ryan Kelley. “They can obtain a very preliminary legal education here.”
Booker’s strongest selling point is opportunity, Kelley says. In addition to its ties with the Sarasota County Bar, local law firms, judges, and law enforcement, Booker has a reciprocal agreement with the University of South Florida and Stetson Law.
“When a freshman in high school comes to me, I can tell them, you maintain a decent GPA in college, and you score in the 50th percentile or better on the LSAT, and through this program, you are guaranteed admission to Stetson Law,” Kelley says.
Through the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education program, or AICE, the academy’s reach extends across the Atlantic, Kelley says. AICE program participants graduate with a magnet school degree and the equivalent of an IB degree. Add recommendations from the internships, and Booker Law Academy graduates are standouts in any college admissions office, Kelley says.
“Our kids are better prepared to compete against their peers in a multitude of ways,” he says.
Booker boosters say the academy is a valuable resource to the Southwest Florida professional community, an intellectual seed bank to promote a more diverse workforce for the future.
Retired Sarasota attorney Charlie Ann Syprett, a driving force behind the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said the panel decided to refocus its efforts on younger prospects after watching minority recipients of law school scholarships launch their careers elsewhere.
Sarasota may be famous for breathtaking sunsets and miles of beaches, but its age, dearth of affordable housing, and monochrome majority tends to repel young, minority professionals, Syprett and others say.
“We had been giving out $5,000 scholarships to minority law students, but it didn’t work because they didn’t return to Sarasota,” Syprett said. “So, technically, we had accomplished nothing.”
Syprett said she was inspired to target younger students after attending an ABA convention in Chicago that focused on earlier educational intervention, commonly known as “The Pipeline.”
One of the diversity projects that followed, “We Are Sarasota” — a major theatrical production based on Sarasota County history and its civil rights struggles — brought Syprett, Judge Williams, and other bar members together with Booker principal Dr. Rachel Shelley, recently named Florida’s Principal of the Year.
Booker High School, named after a pioneering African-American educator — Emma Edwina Booker — was an all-black school during segregation. Now known for its vibrant Visual Performing Arts magnet, (the first magnet program in Sarasota County) Booker High has become highly diverse, ethnically and socio-economically. Booker once had a law academy, but it fell off the curriculum due to lack of interest, Syprett said.
“It was during that first performance of ‘We Are Sarasota’ that Dr. Shelley first suggested bringing back the law academy,” Syprett said.
The local school board was immediately supportive, Syprett said.
“What it takes to run a successful law academy is a supportive school board and a principal who really gets behind it,” Syprett said. “And then you need people to get behind it by raising money, and then you need lawyers to serve as partners, and we just had all of those ingredients to make it work.”
Diversity and Inclusion Committee members raised thousands of dollars to build Booker’s mock trial facility, Syprett said. Scholarship programs were retooled to give a priority to local applicants.
Another critical element in the Booker Law Academy’s success is partnerships with other non-profits, Syprett said. She initially compiled a list of more than 200 organizations, and zeroed in on ones with a similar mission.
“We work probably with about 20 community partners,” she said. “When we need to bus the kids to a local performance, I pick up the phone and call Embracing Our Differences.”
Internships are a critical ingredient to keeping Booker Law Academy students rooted to the community, says Kelley, the academy coordinator. Students who begin careers and form their first professional relationships in Sarasota, are more likely to return there after they graduate law school or a law enforcement academy, Kelley said.
“Our community partners are the life’s blood of this academy,” Kelley said. “That’s what really makes this academy special. Most organizations related to education are driven by the federal government or state government or the county…This academy really has been built because of the community saying, ‘Hey, we want to bring good people back so they can be active and productive members of our society.’”
And that’s why the committee’s Booker Law Academy Mentoring Program is so vital, Kelley said.
The brainchild of 12th Circuit Judge Frederick Mercurio, the program currently consists of about 30 volunteer lawyers who agree to meet with a student at least once a week, usually before school or during a lunch break. Mercurio wanted the mentoring experience to be as authentic as possible for the students, Kelley said.
“The catch with our mentors is they must be actively participating in the career field of either law or law enforcement,” Kelley said. “We have people who are working — they’re not retired, they’re not seasonal — who are saying, ‘I’m going to give up my working hours to go and mentor a law academy student for four years because I see the value in that program.’”
Another Booker Law Academy partner, Faces of Accomplishment, Inc., performs the necessary background checks and provides mentor training so that the program complies with school district policy, Kelley said.
It’s impossible to preict how many Booker Law graduates will become lawyers or go into law enforcement, but some Diversity and Inclusion Committee scholarship recipients are practicing law in Sarasota, Syprett says.
One of them, an African-American woman who works in the public defender’s office, was one of Syprett’s mentees.