'Judge Jack' has cultivated a successful mock trial program with an unlikely group of students
DENVER - Helping kids get back on the right track is something Jack Smith has tried to do his whole life.
Only now, he's doing it before students find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
"I came down, met the kids, and frankly I never left," Smith said.
Only a dozen high school diplomas will be handed out at graduation this June at Denver's La Academia school.
That's because the senior class is never larger than 13 students.
"These kids are wonderful," Smith said, smiling.
At the private school of just 70 students, Smith has been cultivating a passion for justice for more than a decade.
"These kids are beaming. They're wired, they're fired up, they're mad at the judge, they're mad at the other side, and it's really fun!" Smith said.
He's talking about his pet project at the school.
Each year, Smith mentors a team of inner-city students for Colorado's high school mock trial competition.
Vice Principal Marc-Paul Johnsen remembers vividly the day Smith approached him with a wild idea for a group of students that typically struggle with even basic school subjects.
The students at La Academia come from disadvantaged homes. If they've had any experience with the law, it's because they've been on the wrong side of it.
"When he first brought up the idea of mock trial, we're all kind of like, the issue here is not mock trial. The issue is making sure every student is here, they have food, and a safe place to go at night," Johnsen recalled.
Smith wouldn't take no for an answer, and his overwhelming passion made it possible.
"He will go above and beyond to make it happen for you to learn," said one of Smith's students, Sade Dickson.
One other thing helped make Smith's mock trial program nearly an instant success: for 30 years, he sat on the bench as a juvenile court Judge.
"I never worked with any kids in the court who hadn't already, in some form, gotten in trouble with the law and in school. Frankly, that's kind of frustrating because you always saw kids who, darnit, someone should have gotten in touch with them and helped them earlier," Smith said.
Now that he's retired, 'Judge Jack,' as the students affectionately call him, can use the law to teach kids a lesson – before they're in trouble.
"This is a second family," Smith said, "We're all working really hard to help kids who have had disadvantages, but have the potential to turn them around."
Judge volunteers full time at the school, encouraging teens like Sade Dickson, who will be the first in her family to graduate high school.
"I still have his little voice when I go to scholarship interviews, you're going to get nervous but as soon as you step on the podium, it's all you," Dickson said.
Being a part of success for students is now what motivates the Judge to spend nearly all his time at the Inner City Parish school.
"That in itself is so rewarding, it makes me wonder why I wasn't able to do it sooner," Smith said.
In law and in life, what's right isn't always popular. After decades of practicing this himself, the Judge now gets to teach it.
La Academia is a non-profit school that provides scholarships for every student. They do not receive public funding. For more information, visit: http://dicp.org/education/la-academia/.
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