Ryan Kelley is the program coordinator for Booker High School’s Law Academy, a magnet program that provides students with a rigorous academic program in conjunction with coursework in law studies and criminal justice. The program provides students with real-world experience through internships, on-the-job-training and mentorships, including at Legal Aid of Manasota; LAM CEO Linda Harradine has worked closely with mentees.

Kelley spoke with us about his background in law and education, the uniqueness of Booker’s Law Academy, and the importance of its community partnerships.

How did you get involved with the law academy?

“I’m a product of the Sarasota County school system. I’m from Venice, and was familiar with Booker High School from growing up here. In college, I studied history and thought I was going to be an attorney. I had a passion for the law and got into law school, but realized when I was there it was not going to be my thing. I got into teaching, and my first job in Sarasota County was at Booker as a teacher for kids with special needs.

“While I was teaching, the law academy’s coordinator position became available and Booker’s principal, Dr. Rachel Shelley looked to me. She asked if I’d like to lead the law academy, and that’s how I began my tenure.”

How long has the program existed?

“It has its roots dating back to the late 1980s and early- to mid-‘90s, but somewhere between the ‘90s and the early ‘00s, it faded way. The current iteration is the brainchild of Dr. Shelley, Judge Charles Williams and Michelle Anderson, a Sarasota County administrator who was the academy’s first coordinator. It began in 2011, and students were enrolled for the first time in the 2012-2013 school year.”

What is the curriculum like?

“It’s a magnet program, so students get their core classes at Booker, then come to the law academy for the rest of the day. It’s very similar to Booker’s Visual and Performing Arts program. At the academy, the classes are dependent on what year of the program they’re in and what track they’re on—law studies or criminal justice.”  

How many students are enrolled in the program each year? Do most go on to a career in law?

“We’ve had as many as 117 and as few as 40 during the growing years. But typically we have been 75-90 students. Ninety-six percent go on to post-secondary options after they graduate, be that college, trade school or the military.”

Tell us about the physical space.

“Students have class every day inside an actual courtroom. The learning center that we have was a courtroom in the 12th Judicial Circuit in Manatee County. When the courtroom was refurbished, all of the wood paneling was brought to Booker and installed. It’s a mock courtroom—there’s not real court happening!—but instead of a white cinderblock classroom, there’s rich paneled walls, a judge’s bench, a jury box and prosecution and defense tables. Students learn in this room, and the familiarity with the courtroom breeds a level of confidence.”

How important are your community partnerships?

“They’re the greatest aspect of the academy, outside of our students. They enable it to be what it is. For example, we’ve worked with Legal Aid of Manasota since at least 2016. LAM staff has come into the classroom to give presentations about what they do, and LAM has also taken on interns. There’s a mentorship component, too. Linda was a mentor to one of our students and was there to help guide her. Between the student’s guardian at home, their teacher and community at school and the mentorship, it was really the triumvirate.

“Our ideal scenario is that every senior has an internship at a place they’re interested in. It’s like on-the-job training: they come to school in the morning and then leave campus and go to the internship in the afternoon.”

“The breadth of the experience students are exposed to is incredible. On the law studies side, great connections have been made with our partners in the 12th Judicial Circuit, the Public Defender’s office, state attorneys and even private firms. On the criminal justice side, we’ve placed students with the New College police department, and we had a student intern with the local FBI office. It’s amazing to think about the doors that have opened through our community partners. Absent their time and effort, we would just be a regular elective.”

What would you like to make sure people know about the law academy?

“First and foremost, it’s set up to maximize the success of our students. The way academics is at the collegiate level right now, you need to have a little bit of an edge: a good GPA, test scores, recommendations and community service. You can get all of that plus more with a magnet program diploma. And at the end of the day, we are not a law school or a criminal justice academy—we teach those subjects, but if a student wants to be a marine biologist or a physician, we give students the tools to make it happen. The law academy is a robust program that’s truly changing lives.”