Justice High Puts Students in the Courtroom

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?"

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?

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Adam Cayton-Holland