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New Chicago high school grooms future lawyers

CHICAGO – The school principal has a law degree. There are field trips to law firms. And a biology class is inspired by the science of crime scene investigations.

That’s part of the formula at Legal Prep Charter Academies, a new Chicago charter school whose founders hope to increase diversity in the legal profession.

The high school in the city’s West Garfield Park neighborhood opened this year with support from Chicago’s legal profession. It’s the city’s first high school with a legal theme. Sam Finkelstein and Rather Stanton, the two attorneys who founded the school, told the Chicago Tribune it took three years of unpaid 60-hour weeks to make their dream real.

The first 200 freshmen started in late August, signing up for wearing uniforms, a longer school day, longer school year and a rigorous curriculum. The school will add a new class of freshmen every year.

Free to students living in the Chicago school district, the charter school promises students adequate resources for success, including tutoring for students who fall behind. School leaders have set a $2 million fundraising goal. More than 20 companies and law firms are listed as founding partners on the school’s website.

Setting the tone for the school is Principal Beth Bulgeron, a law graduate who was recruited from Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, Calif., a charter school consistently ranked as one of the top performers in the nation.

Only 4 percent of the more than 3,000 lawyers polled in a 2012 Chicago Lawyer survey were African-American and 2.5 percent were Latino – well below their representation in the general population.

Addressing that disparity is part of the school’s mission. A year-round mentoring program helps students find professional role models. Finkelstein and Stanton met working for Just the Beginning Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization also devoted to encouraging students to consider law school. Working with students for a few hours wasn’t enough, Finkelstein said.

“Forget law ... their skills weren’t even going to get them into college,” said Finkelstein. “Once the idea popped into my head that we should create a school, it became a little bit of an obsession.”

Kehesia Bowman, mother of 14-year-old Legal Prep freshman Ricky Davis, said the teachers are very patient.

“They spend a lot of time with the kids.”

Bowman works at a restaurant and believes education can make a different in her children’s lives. She questioned the Legal Prep staff carefully before enrolling Ricky.

“It’s tough out there and getting tougher,” she said. “You can’t get anywhere without an education.”

Finkelstein said the school will focus on “the skills that all great lawyers possess: excellent written and oral communication, critical thinking and problem solving. ... Do we think everyone here will end up with a law degree? No. But we are excited to be part of a pipeline ... and think we can ultimately make a difference in the legal profession.”

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