Two years ago, Central High School student Melisa Nelson was terrified of public speaking. She knew she wanted to improve. But how? Enter the Central High School Mock Trial Team, one of over 30 citywide teams.
On Saturday, March 16, the unassuming 17-year old Nelson, now a senior, took the witness stand inside an overflowing simulated courtroom at Temple University Beasley School of Law and put her five-hour-a-day practices to work at the John S. Bradway High School Mock Trial Competition.
In a clear, composed voice she embraced the role assigned to her: an engineer giving expert testimony in a third-degree murder trial. Her poise impressed the panel of scoring judges, which included an actual judge, a retired state representative and barristers from the city’s top firms. At the trial’s conclusion Nelson received an Outstanding Witness Award for her team.
“I was rather surprised,” Nelson confessed. “I thought everyone did an excellent job.”
So did Roberta West, a lawyer and program director for Temple-LEAP, which organized Saturday’s competition between Central High School and Girard College.
“Right now Cecil B. Moore would be so proud of you all,” she told the assembled students. “And so would Judge Marutani.” She was referring, of course, to the histories of both schools.
In 1969, the trustees of Girard finally voted to admit seven African-American students after a 15-year court battle to desegregate the school, and protests led by local NAACP leader Cecil B. Moore. Another messy courtroom victory concluded in 1983 when Judge William M. Marutani of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas concluded that Central’s single-sex policy was unconstitutional. That same year, six girls entered the school. The demographics of Saturday’s teams reflected the results of those historic court cases: 70 percent of Central’s team was female. Close to 86 percent of Girard’s was African-American.
On Saturday, the audience included Moore’s daughter as well as the daughter of Judge Marutani. The two watched intently as finalists from Girard and Central faced off in a tense two and a half-hour trial. When West summoned the two to the front, both teams stood in honor of the women’s fathers, who had made admission possible for so many of them.
A community among struggling schools
For 33 years, local high schools have participated in the competition, hosted by the Young Lawyers Division of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Temple-LEAP and Temple Law. Girard had never before been a finalist. Central had won twice — in ’86 and last year. On Saturday, Central celebrated its third victory. It was an emotional, tear-filled moment on both sides.
Central’s long road to the city championships included wins over teams from elite private schools such as St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, William Penn Charter School, Roman Catholic High School and Germantown Friends. The win comes during a year when Philadelphia public schools are struggling to survive.
But at least one individual believes extracurriculars like the mock trial program can be a key to unlocking student potential.
“The best mock trial teams are able to create communities that support students both in the courtroom and outside,” says Julian Thompson, attorney advisor to the Central team.
Ten years ago, Thompson graduated from Central, a two-year veteran of the school’s mock trial team. Three years ago, he returned to the school, a Morehouse College and Harvard Law garduate and a member of both schools’ trial teams. “Once I finished law school, I realized that I didn’t want to practice,” said Thompson. “What I appreciated all along was the educational aspects of using law to teach people about things — both inside and outside law.”
Now Thompson works as a project manager for City Year, an AmeriCorps program that partners with high-need public schools to provide full-time, targeted student interventions. But four days a week his evenings belong to Central’s mock trial team, where he collaborates with Ronald Romoff, a Central teacher and his former coach, and attorney-coach Kate Miltner.
Thompson knows first hand the impact mock trial can have on a young person’s confidence. When Romoff first convinced Thompson to join the team as a junior, he was immediately hooked. “I used to sit on the L bus on my way to Plymouth Meeting Mall, where I worked at the Popeye’s, and just pore over the cases,” he recalled fondly. “It was great, because they would give us these complicated fact patterns, and my brain could just run for miles with it.”
The experience was his first exposure to law — and lawyers. “Writing was always really challenging for me in school,” recalled Thompson. “It was much easier for me to express myself in public speaking and rhetoric.” He sees the same pattern in today’s high school students.
“In the long term, I appreciate what mock trial means for minority students,” says Thompson. According to The Notebook, a little over one-third of Central students last year were African American.
Growing in knowledge and confidence
As his third advisory year comes to a close, Thompson has seen his students flourish academically and otherwise. “They grow in the courtroom in terms of knowledge of procedures, but I’m more impressed at their ability to lead the team outside of the classroom. They’ve created this inclusive culture where kids can really be comfortable.”
One of those leaders is 18-year-old Darien Carter, co-captain of the team. “I was not always a public speaker. It was really scary as a sophomore when attorneys from other teams cross-examined me,” recalled Carter, who played a witness his first year.
He admits that, initially, he struggled on the team. But he persevered and, in his junior team, came back as an attorney. His favorite part? “There’s always a few seconds before you start speaking when you’re terrified you’ll fumble. But then there’s this ‘eureka’ moment. And boom — you’re on fire.”
On Saturday, Carter, a senior whose college plans will lead him to either Morehouse or Howard University, watched as the team was awarded the city championship.
“This was one of my last trials in Philadelphia,” said Carter, who will be there this coming Friday as the team prepares for the state championship in Harrisburg. “I’ve come full circle.”
Kishwer Vikaas graduated from Central High School 10 years ago. Currently she studies law at Temple and edits The Aerogram.