Paige Kelschenbach always wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement.
"When I was little, I wanted to put the bad guys away," says the Mount St. Mary Academy senior. "I'm fascinated by the way the mind works, especially the mind of a killer."
Paige is too young to go to law school; she won't even be starting college until September. But a special program offered by Erie 1 BOCES is giving her a chance to gain legal experience before graduating from high school.
Housed in the back room of a small building at Medaille College, the Legal Academy offers daily three-hour sessions that focus on legal cases, debate techniques and careers in the legal field.
"Every day we accomplish so much and cover so much material, but it's always interesting," says Paige. "I love learning everything we do. It's a very interactive environment."
Legal Academy offers independent and cooperative instruction to students from a broad range of high schools in Erie County.
"Students work on-site with law-related career professionals," says the program's website. "They work on projects grounded in New York State learning standards on topics ranging from community service to free enterprise."
The emphasis is on learning by doing.
"The best way to find out about the government is to experience it," says Wendy Fischer, the academy's instructor.
Legal Academy allows its participants to do just that, while simultaneously earning several required high school credits, including advanced courses in English, government, economics and criminal justice.
Legal Academy assigns its students to internships with local officials ranging from County Executive Mark Poloncarz (while he was the county comptroller) to state and county legislators.
Alex Fultz, a senior at Kenmore East High School, says his internship with State Sen. Mark Grisanti "helped shape my political views. I learned about politics and how, even if you're always in the public eye, you can't let criticism get to you."
A fellow Kenmore East student, Maria Ta, is preparing to do an internship at the Law Guardian Unit of the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.
"I'm quite excited for that one," she says. "I'll be able to see how the law affects people close to our age and how there are people who are there to specifically help kids protect their rights."
Students are also required to participate in 18 hours of community service projects.
Brooke Meehan, who attends Maryvale Senior High School, interned under State Sen. Tim Kennedy and learned through that job of a South Park cleanup effort. Several Legal Academy students participated, earning nearly seven hours of credit.
While their career goals may vary, the students are unanimous in their enthusiasm for the program.
"I knew I wanted to do something in law, but I really wasn't sure what exactly. Then when I found out about the Legal Academy, I knew I had to go for it," says Maria.
Paige adds, "At first I was leaning more toward law enforcement, becoming a detective or working for the FBI. But now I've decided I want to go to law school."
Grand Island High School student Connor Frascatore also has experienced a change of direction since joining the academy, but it has confirmed his general interest in the field.
"At the beginning of the year, I wanted to be an attorney, but after law school interviews, I changed to a sports attorney. Now I'm looking at governmental law enforcement, like the FBI."
This year's participants applied for admission to the Legal Academy during their junior year in high school. They attend classes at Medaille in the morning, then return to their regular schools in the afternoon.
Arisha Roberts, an Amherst High School senior, says she learned about the program through a field trip to the Harkness Career and Technical Center, a branch of Erie 1 BOCES. Others were tipped off by their guidance counselors.
The application process "was a little intimidating," admits Paige, "but it helped me prepare for college applications and my first job interview a few months later."
Applicants are required to compile a resume and transcript, as well as two letters of recommendations and one essay explaining their interest in the program and their potential contributions. They also met for an interview with Fischer.
The highlight of each week is a crossfire debate on Wednesdays. Prior to the debate, Fischer reviews assertions and rebuttals for the issue at hand. The two teams, each with five members, then go head to head. They debate costs, benefits and public interest -- just like real lawyers or legislators would do.
"It's a challenging system," says Fischer. "But in the end, you sink or swim with your team."
Lindsay Thomas is a senior at Kenmore East High School.