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Unique Tipping the Scales Program Shows Students There is a Place for them in the Legal Field

East High students from the Tipping the Scales program pose with Michael States, Inaugural Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, during a field trip to the UW Law School.

What do you remember from school? A special teacher? A class that sparked a passion or curiosity that maybe pushed you to take your learning into your own hands. Perhaps there was a group project, a guest speaker, or a field trip that played a role in leading you where you are today.

Every student comes to the classroom with different experiences. Some are broad and varied, others quite limited by a family’s socio-economic situation. Field trips are one of the best tools available through school to expand every student’s exposure to the world. When students have the opportunity to build and see connections between classroom learning and the ‘real-world’ they begin to see how they can help solve problems they see in the world around them, and they begin to see and form their future selves.  

Mary Bartzen, Community Partnerships Director at the Madison Public Schools Foundation, is keenly aware of the importance of field trips as an opportunity to level the playing field for students. “Field trips through school provide access to opportunities and spaces for all students regardless of their family’s economic status. These experiences can be powerful eye-opening and life-changing moments for a student,” she says.

Adopt-a-School Partner, Alliant Energy Creates Program to Give Students Access to Legal Profession

Adopt-a-School partner, Michelle Yun, senior manager of strategy and electrification at Alliant Energy, launched Tipping the Scales, a program connecting attorneys, judges, and other local leaders in the legal field with East High students to share their stories and professional experiences. “We have such talented young people right here,” Yun comments. “While we do focus on recruiting the best and the brightest to our service area, we can also invest in our own communities to grow that diverse talent right here.”

When Tipping the Scales launched in 2020, the easiest way to get it off the ground was to bring legal professionals to the students. However, by the following school year (2021-22), Michelle Yun, together with East High School counselor Sarah Elmore, flipped the model, exposing students to the various professional legal environments, and arranged five field trips for the school year. Participating students were from the AVID program – an in-school support program that helps level the playing field for minority, low-income and other students by preparing academically average students in advanced classes.

It was important to Yun and Elmore for students to have exposure to a diverse set of law practitioners, with Yun commenting: “Meeting a diverse attorney or judge from our community allows young people to see themselves as a lawyer in the future and helps them realize there is room at our legal table for them.” Elmore added: “Tipping the Scales is such a valuable program because it provides students with the opportunity to hear from legal professionals of color.  The participating lawyers are underrepresented in the field of law and serve as role models for the students and encourage the students to follow their dreams.”

A Five Field Trip Program for the 2021-22 School Year

The first of the five field trips took students to the Alliant Energy headquarters for an introduction to getting into the legal profession, and a lesson on Equal Protection & School Segregation to engage the students in thoughtful conversation.

Judge Mario White and attorney Payal Khandhar (left) address East students (right) during field trip to Dane County Courthouse.

Students then journeyed to the Dane County Courthouse where District Court Judge Mario White hosted the students in his courtroom joined by attorney Payal Khandhar. Students were asked to read several case studies highlighting racial profiling and summarize the situations in their own words.  Topics included pretextual traffic stops and the fact that partial racial profiling is legal.

Judge White, who was appointed by Governor Evers in June 2020 shared that he began his career as a high school math teacher and that he disliked criminal law while in law school but ended up working in the Public Defender’s office. His point to the students was that you don’t have to know what you want to do and that you can make a career change. Both Judge White and Attorney Khandhar shared there were no lawyers in their families, and that neither one knew any lawyers, let alone judges.

After this session, Yun commented: “Tipping the Scales is successful because of leaders like Attorney Khandhar and Judge White. The opportunity to turn a courtroom into a classroom and learn directly from a judge and practicing attorney is rare and should be celebrated. You never know where you are catching a young person in their mental growth and evolution.”

Constitutional Law Professor, Asifa Quraishi-Landes (right), engages East High students in a thought-provoking discussion during a visit to the UW Law School.

Next up, was a visit to the University of Wisconsin Law School to meet and learn from Constitutional Law Professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes; Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid Rebecca Scheller; Associate Dean for DEI Michael States; and second-year law students Karen Suárez Jiménez and Jason Swaby. After engaging the students in a thought-provoking class and discussion, Professor Quraishi-Landes remarked that the East High students were perfectly capable of high-level analysis, adding: “You are ready to go – this is really abstract academic stuff.” 

After the UW Law School field trip, current East High School senior Leonardo (Leo) Herrera-Perez shared, “It was the first time I thought about a possible career in politics or law.  During the session, I saw the possible variety of outcomes, which was interesting and thought-provoking. I appreciated the challenges, the additional complexities, and that my fellow East High students were so engaged.”

Perkins Coie, an international law firm with an office in downtown Madison hosted the fourth session of the Tipping the Scales program. Attorney Sopen Shah (who was nominated by President Biden to be the US Attorney for the Western District of WI) and Attorney Anna C. Avendaño walked students through a free speech case study focused on Snapchats made by high school students and the punishment one student received.  A robust conversation followed about the First Amendment, whether the Constitution protects minors, and how student and adult behavior off campus impacts students when they are at East High School.

The fifth and final field trip was to the State Capitol where students were hosted by State Representative Jimmy Anderson. Representative Anderson shared what happens at the Capitol and his journey to becoming a State Representative. Prompted by student questions, he shared some of the biggest misconceptions about being a lawyer and the importance of perseverance and hard work in achieving your goals. He encouraged students to volunteer – even an hour a month can help create positive change – and to register to vote the minute they are able.

Reflections About the Program

East High School counselor Sarah Elmore with current East High School senior, and Tipping the Scales participant, Leonardo (Leo) Herrera-Perez

Reflecting on the 2021/22 school year Tipping the Scales program, Elmore remarks on the fun it brought to school and the many opportunities it provided for students to interact with classmates outside of school, and in different ways than they may have while at school. She also feels that students may now dream bigger and engage in learning opportunities outside of the classroom and school environment. “All the lawyers treated the students as thinkers, but in a non-threatening way. I love helping our students see all the opportunities that are out there.  Hearing from actual lawyers who have come from backgrounds similar to the participating students is really inspiring,” she commented. Leo added that he met several East High students he likely would not have otherwise met, some of whom have become good friends. He also shared that his Tipping the Scales field trips left him feeling motivated and energized upon his return to the classroom. Leo has been accepted at UW-Platteville, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Eau Claire, Edgewood College, and UW-Madison, the latter of which he has chosen to attend. He plans to major in Political Science and is currently hoping to go on to the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Now in its third year, Tipping the Scales continues to be powered by the Alliant Energy and East High School Adopt-a-School partnership, and coordinated by Michelle Yun and Sarah Elmore. All five field trip sites are continuing with the program, with Yun commenting: “All the Tipping the Scales hosts were more than excited to participate again this year as they all came away from the experience last year with such a positive sense of our legal future. Speaking with some of the hosts, they really felt they were meeting with future colleagues and members of the State Bar – it’s a humbling experience to help someone along in that journey.” With that, this year’s participating students will enjoy the same great opportunities to gather real-world experiences and learn that they, too, have a place in the legal profession.    

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