T.J. Cole refers to them as To Sir, With Love moments, a reference to the 1967 Sidney Poitier film in which the actor plays a rookie teacher facing a rowdy class of street toughs in London's East End. Of course, there are variations on the theme: Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver, Higher Learning, even Blackboard Jungle, a '50s film in which Poitier was one of the toughs. The movies all have a similar premise: a group of undisciplined, disadvantaged students deemed too unruly for the system are cast aside, left to wither away like the statistics they seem born to become, until a heroic teacher/principal/administrator sees the possibility in these kids that they may never have seen themselves, and that person steps in and refuses to let them fail, even though he has to fight like hell to convince the delinquents that they are worth something. Eventually, the kids get the message, and then there's the graduation scene, or the shot with the gangbanger unlocking the door of the restaurant he now manages, or the student who's the first in his family to ever attend college, strolling across some idyllic, grassy common — the To Sir, With Love moment, the poignant realization that all the hard work has been worth it.
In a small conference room in the Boulder County Justice Center where Cole, a Boulder County magistrate, regularly presides over juvenile court, a seedling of such a moment is being planted — even if Cole is the only one who knows it. He's the Sir in this telling of the story, the principal of Justice High School, an 86-student charter school for the worst of the worst kids who have been run out of his courtroom, and the protagonists in such scenarios always see what others can't. That's why they're the protagonists.
"I want to know why is it that you had 125 absences last year?" Cole asks sixteen-year-old Ricardo. "What are we doing wrong that we can't get you to school?"
Justice High School
Cole, who's wearing his black judge robe and eating a burrito — for which he apologizes, explaining that he has been so busy he hasn't had time to eat all day — has been joined by a Boulder Valley School District truancy officer. Seated by Ricardo is his construction-worker father — black boots, Chevy truck keychain dangling from his belt loop — and next to him, a court translator, rapidly converting everything Cole says into Spanish. Ricardo has tucked his shirt in for this meeting with the judge, and he comports himself respectfully, if at times seeming a little shaky with nerves.
Cole sizes him up.
"You seem like a smart kid," he tells Ricardo. "You present yourself well; I can tell you have good parents here. What's the problem?"
Ricardo begins telling Cole that he hasn't been getting into trouble when he's not at school; he's been working at a local Mexican restaurant, putting in long hours and often opening the place. Cole stops him by asking point-blank how much he makes in a pay period. Ricardo answers: $250.
"You see these nice-looking men and women walking around this courthouse, with suits and briefcases?" Cole asks Ricardo, who nods his head. "How much do you think those people make in an hour?"
"Twenty dollars?" Ricardo says, then amends his answer. "Forty dollars?"
"Try $250," Cole says. "They make in one hour what you make in an entire pay period. And you could be one of those people. But you know how they did it? They went to high school and they got their diploma. And then they went to college and got another diploma. And then they went to law school and got another diploma."
Cole tempers his remarks by telling Ricardo there's nothing wrong with good, hard, honest labor — "You can't name a fast-food joint I didn't work in," he says — but that labor must come after school.
"And if Manuel keeps making you take those morning shifts," Cole says, name-checking the manager of the restaurant where Ricardo works, "you tell him that Magistrate Cole said to only let you work after school. And if he doesn't know who I am, tell him I'm the guy who comes in every Thursday morning with the big order."
Burrito just about finished, Cole and the truancy officer help Ricardo write a plan outlining precisely what he needs to do to stay in what is now his third high school. Ricardo asks for an in-school mentor who'll kick his ass when he's starting to think about ditching, and even requests a slot in a highly sought-after program called Tech, where students get to work in a professional field. Cole tells Ricardo that he doesn't yet deserve a spot in Tech. But then he strikes a deal with the truant: If Ricardo attends all of his classes and does well — "We're talking A's and B's," Cole says — then he will personally recommend him for Tech. And if not?
"Well, then we'll see you on the other side of this wall," Cole says, pointing over his shoulder to the white wall behind him. "We'll see you in the courtroom."
Cole shakes Ricardo's hand, shakes his father's hand, then excuses himself.
"Time to go be me," he says.
As Cole sits down behind the bench of Courtroom P, it quickly becomes clear that he could star in his own TV show, if not a To Sir, With Love-style movie. He conducts this Friday's afternoon session like an auctioneer, rattling through his opening remarks with humor and assembly-line efficiency, dealing with four separate juvenile cases — possession of drug paraphernalia, assault, running away from a youth facility, possession of a weapon at school — in under twenty minutes. Parents who hunch sheepishly behind their offending juvenile are addressed as Mom and Dad and children as adults, with courtesy and respect but also with severity — particularly those whom Cole has seen before. Still, he carries himself with an ease and confidence that makes the courtroom seem comfortable, at one moment dropping a Perry Mason joke, at another firing off his own quotable line: "You want to join any more gangs, you're going to join my gang: the Black Robes. You're gonna roll with my set. And we don't get in any trouble in my set. We do the right thing."
When not being directly addressed by the judge, those awaiting their day in court seem to genuinely enjoy the T.J. Cole show. The studio audience is having a good time.
After an hour or so, Cole calls for a recess. He quickly signs off on a few motions and speeds to another truancy meeting. Later, he'll return to the bench and continue to hold court until about five, when he'll speed down to Denver to teach a class at Metro State College before heading back to Arvada and joining his three sons for dinner.
And this is a relatively slow day for Cole. Since it's a planning day at Justice High, there are no kids hustling in and out of his chambers during recess, pestering for help with their moot-court preparation or clamoring for the food Cole keeps in his refrigerator. And football season is over, so Cole doesn't have to squeeze in practice for the eight-man Justice High team, which he also coaches.
"If they had the designation thirty years ago, they probably would have said I have ADHD," Cole jokes. "I don't think I have anything like that, but for me, keeping busy, keeping a full plate, has always helped me be successful. You have to be able to keep a full plate if you want to be the principal at a place like Justice High."
The official motto of Justice High School — school mascot the Phoenix — is "Rise above the ordinary to achieve the impossible." The unofficial motto, however, could very well be "Don't sweat the small stuff." A school dedicated to providing year-round college preparatory education for students who are chronically truant, expelled and/or involved in the criminal-justice system wouldn't last very long if the teachers and administrators did much sweating. So behavior that might be considered unforgivable at private schools and at least discipline-worthy at public ones isn't that big a deal at Justice High. Swearing, while not technically condoned, is fairly commonplace, and the teachers appear highly capable of weeding out modern-day teen parlance from terms too hot for prime time. Smoking isn't a battle that these teachers choose to fight, either. Students absentmindedly spin their packs on tables during class and light up right outside the courthouse afterward, alongside harried assistant district attorneys, citizens awaiting hearings and the innumerable worker bees who keep courthouses running.
But a casual attitude toward smoking and swearing is hardly the only thing that makes Justice High stand out. For starters, there's the school's setting: inside a courtroom. Classes also take place at another building — the North Campus, which is a short walk across Canyon Boulevard — but more than half of them are held inside the small, pre-trial hearing rooms located beyond Cole's courtroom, just behind the doors in back of the bench. While the entrances to neighboring courtrooms are bare save for a docket or two, the door to Courtroom P is festooned with photographs of students at Justice High, framed letters welcoming kids to the National Honor Society, press clippings of young athletes playing basketball and football in the school's blue-and-white uniforms. When court isn't in session, teachers regularly hold class inside Courtroom P, with students sitting on the benches or in the pre-arraignment waiting area. When court is in session, the school's handful of staffers and teachers grab whatever space is available in the courthouse. In addition to the core curriculum, areas of study include management (students can get credit for working at businesses), a popular new class titled "Natural Highs," and even the meditation that English teacher Jason Wikonowski has been dabbling in with some students.
"There is enough room to play around a little bit," Cole says. "We try to make it so that most of our curriculum content is not too far different from everyone else. That said, what we try to recognize is that being a charter school for at-risk kids means that the kids are here because the traditional plan did not work for them, for a myriad of reasons. A lot of our kids are the kids who've been expelled, the kids who are gangsters, the kids who no one else wants. And one of the reasons no one else wants them is because they're in a traditional atmosphere trying to work with an untraditional kid; they're trying to put a square peg in a round hole, and it's not working for those students."
Justice High is actually the second charter school to be run out of the Boulder County Justice Center. The first, Boulder Prep, operated under similar auspices from 1997 to 2002, until it grew too large for the space now occupied by Justice High and moved across town. Cole, who'd started Boulder Prep and served as its principal, then handed off the job to a new principal. The impetus behind that school, like the impetus behind Justice High, was a belief in the fundamentally transformative nature of education. Cole's belief.
Cole was born into what he describes as a "middle-class home in a decent north Denver neighborhood," the only child of a mother who worked as a chambermaid and a father in the Air Force who worked as a radio/television broadcaster and producer, from whom his son no doubt inherited some of his showmanship. There were the traditional Army-brat interludes, including a few years spent in Germany, but when his parents divorced, Cole stayed with his mother in Denver, attending Horace Mann Middle School, then North High School. Despite her busy schedule, Cole's mother still found time to preach education. She would get up at 5:30 a.m. and walk to work, clean hotel rooms for nine hours, then come home and cook a big meal for her son, after which she'd make sure he did his homework, stressing schooling as the route to a better life.
Cole swallowed that medicine. After high school, he went to Colorado College, where he majored in political science and fell in love with the block system, in which a student takes one course for three weeks straight, then moves on to another.
"It's more conducive to the real world," Cole says of the system, which inspired the course structure at Justice High. "It gets you ready for jobs where you have time deadlines, expectations that need to be met; it shows you how to compartmentalize, get things ready to go, finish a project and move on."
Cole attended law school at the University of Denver, then earned a master's in international politics at La Salle University. After working as a state public defender for five years, he applied to become a magistrate and secured part-time positions on district-court benches in both Boulder and Pueblo. Finally, he was appointed to a full-time post as magistrate in Boulder, where he presides over a wide variety of cases, with an emphasis on juveniles. And somewhere along the way, he managed to earn a master's in judicial studies in juvenile and family court from the University of Nevada in Reno. (Cole still teaches an occasional seminar there as an associate professor.)
And then in 1993, the so-called Summer of Violence hit Denver, and cries of alarm over the state's wayward youth came from every sector of society. In terms of raw statistics, the number of murders that summer was no higher than average, but gang violence seemed to be spilling out everywhere, affecting people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. To clamp down on that violence, the Colorado Senate pushed through an expanded SB 94, bumping up an already in-place project calling for collaborative community planning groups to change policies surrounding the incarceration of youths.
"There was some really great, creative programming that came from that," Cole says. "But I remember thinking that the piece that was not really getting covered well was the educational piece."
And it particularly irked him that as a result of get-tough legislation, if a student was kicked out of school, he was now kicked out for a calendar year — which meant that if he were suspended in November 1994, he could not return again until January '96, once the new semester of the following year had started. So that meant kids might be out of school for more than a year.
"That got me stirring, thinking that there has to be something else," Cole remembers. "You can't just say 'peace' to the student and not have another plan for him. So me and a probation officer were sitting in the office having lunch and we started kicking around the idea of starting our own thing. We figured we could use some of the back rooms, maybe go to the University of Colorado and have some of the master's-level teachers come here who wanted to practice anyway, and then next thing you know, another P.O. wanted in on it, and then a lawyer who was very passionate about kids wanted in. And the idea just kind of grew."
Greg Brown, now chief probation officer for the 20th Judicial District, was the probation officer who started thinking about a new way of schooling troubled students. "Myself, Andre Adeli, a local defense attorney, and Roxanne Nice were brainstorming about options for kids who were coming out of boot camp, detention or home placement who were unable to transition into local schools," Brown says. "Plus, there were other kids on probation who had not done well in the traditional school settings. So we thought that by providing some short-term success for them to reach for, we could re-engage them in the love of learning, and they would be able to be successful in school."
They started doing some research, and determined that about 80 percent of the delinquents passing through Cole's courtroom had educational issues — a figure that Cole still repeats in disbelief, citing it as a statistic that politicians should seize on when they're stumping for education. When Cole pitched the concept of a new school, he'd quote that figure to everyone.
"We had a great community here that kind of saw it from the get-go," he says. "People realized that if we really want to make a difference and get our bang for our buck, it goes back to what I've always believed: Education is the key to having a decent life and having a decent shot. Recognizing that, it wasn't hard for everyone in the justice system and the legal system to say, 'Hey, if we can make some inroads into education and we can make some positive changes, we really might be able to reduce the recidivism rate.' As time evolved, essentially everyone involved said as long as you don't cause craziness and you can get it all done, go for it. And that's how Boulder Prep started. Eventually, that grew up and moved out and we had this space again, so Justice High was born. It's not like truancy, delinquency and kids dropping out just stopped."
"Both Prep and Justice have exceeded my wildest expectations," Brown says. "Now we have students at the schools who are referrals from other parents, siblings or friends of students who have found success there. Both schools have waiting lists for kids who want a different educational experience."
Justice High operated as a non-profit school for truant and delinquent teens until it attained charter status in the Boulder Valley School District in January 2006, following the same template Cole had designed for Boulder Prep and operating under the same guidelines as the five other charter high schools in the district. While Justice High receives around $6,000 per student from the district to pay for everything from textbooks to teachers, the space in the courtroom comes free of charge, which leaves funds for such things as sports uniforms. And it's all money well spent, according to Chris King, superintendent of the school district.
"I think one of the things that makes it work is the impact of it being in a courthouse," he says. "There's some power there. But I think it's also more the fact that the kids can get true wrap-around service. It's one-stop shopping for probation courts, schooling, etc. There's a tighter support system right there in the Justice Center, and I think the school lets students take true advantage of that."
Given the rising number of students whose needs aren't met by traditional schools, other districts could use schools like Boulder Prep and Justice High, King suggests. But those districts are lacking one critical component. "It takes a special person to build and design something like that," he says. "You have to have someone with a lot of passion and a lot of vision to make it work. You could duplicate the program elsewhere, but you would probably have to duplicate T.J. Cole, too."
T. J. Cole is now between bites of a baloney sandwich. "The difference between us and other schools is that we really try hard to take negative labels that these kids have achieved in their academic careers — and in many cases, rightfully so — and make them positive," he says while chewing, answering phone calls, sorting paperwork and dealing with an ever-rotating cast of people peering in his office with a quick question. "Because we believe as part of our philosophy that kids who are given positive, positive, positive as well as higher goals, will try to attain those. So at Justice High, we made the requirement that you have to be accepted into three colleges before graduating, and as of two or three years ago, we make every kid take at least two college-level courses; if you don't pass them, your diploma stays here."
Cole opens a cabinet door to display a stack of diplomas still fresh and crisp in their decorative plastic covers. It's no wonder that kids around here consider him a hardass. After all, it was Cole — T.J. to the students — who implemented "BadNastys," a disciplinary measure involving free weights and calisthenics that particularly unruly students have to engage in right there in his office. But it was also Cole who decided that trusted seniors — seniors who've been through the Justice High system and done well — could issue the same BadNastys to underclassmen they see misbehaving.
And though many kids may resent Cole through much of their time at Justice High, eventually they come around. He's the ballbuster coach who makes you run the bleachers when you swear you're going to puke, the possessed piano teacher who never lets you stop practicing the scales. Looking back, you can't help but appreciate all that person did for you.
"He likes to push you to your full potential," says Dafna Gozani, a former student at Boulder Prep who's now interning/teaching at Justice High while she pursues a law degree. "But it's something you come to be grateful for. I was really screwing up when I came here, and I just remember my first day thinking what an odd feeling it was walking into a courthouse and not having handcuffs on. The dedication and care that my teachers had for me is something I will never forget. I see kids going through the same stuff I went through, and when they're complaining, I just point to all of the students who graduated who come back and visit four, five times a year. Just to say hello. You don't see that at many other high schools."
Lolita Respectsnothing, a senior of Oglala Sioux descent who's the girls' basketball captain at Justice High, finally found a home at this school as well. Lolita, who never met her father, for years moved back and forth between living with her mother — when her mother wasn't in trouble with the law — and spending time with relatives "on the res" in South Dakota. That life created huge gaps in Lolita's education: She estimates she's been in ten different schools, five different high schools alone. Finally, when a caseworker sent her to live in a group home in north Boulder, she landed at Justice High School — and she says she's never liked a school better. "At other schools, the classes were too big," she says. "Everyone knows everyone here; everyone is really close. It wasn't as easy for me to fall through the cracks and not pay attention or goof off. This is the only school I've found that actually keeps me in school, the only school I've found that I actually want to be at."
Her Sioux last name, which actually means "Fears Nothing," was incorrectly translated years ago, but the breakout basketball star admits it has a nice ring when an announcer calls out, "Respectsnothing with the rebound! Respectsnothing with the three!"
Lolita expects to graduate this spring and hopes to pursue studies in sports management or sports medicine, probably at Fort Lewis College in Durango. And even though she now lives in Denver with her boyfriend, she still manages to make it to class. Her principal drives her there every morning.
"I think why Justice High works is because every kid, no matter how much they like or don't like us, at the end of the day knows we truly care, from the bottom of our toes to the tops of our heads," says Cole, the principal and chauffeur. "We're lucky to have the incredible staff we do. People say, 'Can you duplicate this in San Francisco? Can you duplicate this in Ohio? And I support it and will do whatever I can to assist, but the one thing I can't re-create is the energy, the drive and compassion of the individuals working here with the kids."
"You need high expectations but a certain amount of honesty and flexibility that you don't need in a normal classroom," says Taimi Clark, a reading teacher who taught at the university level as well as at Brighton Charter School and Brighton High School before she found herself at the school inside the courthouse. "These kids, more than any others, are going to call you on lack of truthfulness. When looking at the types of students who come through Justice High School, one wants to say that you need to have tighter security and discipline, but the reality is that you just need more flexibility. These kids don't play by the normal set of rules, so you have to adapt to that."
Everyone learns to adapt at Justice High — everyone from the teachers who have to learn how to deal with thirteen-year-old students who are barely able to read, to the students who have to learn to be accountable for themselves because someone not only expects greatness from them, but demands it. And they have to adapt to outside expectations, too: Last year, Justice High School failed to make "adequate yearly progress" on its CSAP scores as required by the federal No Child Left Behind guidelines.
"Think about it," Cole says. "We're the school that everyone sends who to? The dropouts, the truants, those kids. Oftentimes we get kids a month before the test, before anyone on my staff has had a chance to assess, to fix, to remediate. If that student was here three years, uninterrupted by his drug and alcohol habit, without going to jail for six months, without all these other issues, if the playing field was fair, I'd say, 'Yeah, we messed up with that student, we did something wrong that he got so low a score.' Of course I want to get those scores up. But I'm more concerned with getting that kid into college. Most of our kids get scholarships, too — not full rides, all of them, but 60 to 70 percent get something, which is a far cry from being a dropout a year ago, a delinquent."
Forty-two students have graduated from Justice High since the school started, and of those, more than thirty have gone on to college. Many more have used Justice High as a place to help them get the tools they need to attend more traditional high schools for the first time, or to return to schools that previously deemed them unteachable. "So given all that, I'd say we do pretty damn good," Cole continues. "It's amazing: There are kids who will get here, take one look around and say, 'I'm out,' and leave. But four or five months go by, and I look up and see that same student knocking on my door saying, 'Hey, I was a little rash, I'm back; I found out that this is where I need to be.' Almost everyone who has left has always come back. I mean, we've lost a few students, but I would say 95 percent of those who leave come back and want to re-enroll. That tells me we're doing something right; that tells me something is okay."
It's Tuesday afternoon, and, as usual, T.J. Cole's office is a hotbed of activity. Students dart in and out, the phone rings off the hook, piles of paperwork nearly obscure him behind his desk. But Cole is looking beyond all that, into the future, staring directly at a To Sir, With Love moment, envisioning this year's graduation. He mentions a moment in that film when Sidney Poitier has successfully weathered the storm of his first year of ruffians — only to return to school and encounter a whole new crop of miscreants. In that scene, he realizes that it's time to do it all over again, to roll up his sleeves and get back to work.
This is a scene Cole can relate to, because he lives it year after year. A while ago, a reporter was working on a story about him, talking about writing a treatment for a film about Justice High. She got pregnant and disappeared, but it's still a hell of a story.
And what would such a movie look like?
"It would be a motivational film about a bunch of students who no one else wanted," Cole says, after thinking for a moment. "A group of kids who no one thought could learn and who, as a final-ditch effort, were sent to Justice High School, where a group of committed, motivated, deeply caring individuals did whatever it took to get those kids where they needed to be. They would work with the kids who had second-, third-grade reading levels and get them up to speed, and they would take the ridicule they would endure and all the crap they got when the school's scores came out in the papers, because they would know those figures were not reflective of who those kids were and what they were capable of. They would just shrug it off, because those special people would know that the long-term payoff is what they were seeking."
And how would that long-term payoff manifest itself on screen? At Justice High's graduation ceremony, of course.
"People often forget just how miraculous it is for these kids to even get a diploma, knowing where some of them came from," Cole continues. "A graduation ceremony would be a triumphant way to end that film."
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And who would play T.J. Cole in the big-screen version? Sidney Poitier?
"Denzel Washington," he says with a grin. "He's the only one who could capture the intensity."
And with that, Magistrate Cole excuses himself and slips on his black judge's robe.
"Time to go be me."