Court Radio Sunday 7 a.m: How the Overbrook High School Mock Trial Team is an Inspiration in Philadelphia

For the last 25 years, Phil Beauchemin has been teaching history and “street law” to some of the city’s most underprivileged students at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. They’re African-American kids largely from poor families, from broken families and from neighborhoods where high test scores haven’t been the norm.

But don’t tell that to the overachieving kids who have been participating for all of those years on the school’s Mock Trial Team, which Beauchemin coaches. These same kids have been excelling each year and working incredibly hard to help the school’s Mock Trial Team win a slew of trophies and championships and gain lots of respect in competitions around the nation.

Beauchemin and the students who participated on the Mock Trial Team this past school year will be the guests on “Court Radio” at 7 a.m. this Sunday to share their inspiring stories with Court Radio host and MyPhillyLawyer managing partner Dean Weitzman and his co-host David Rapoport on the show.

Court Radio is broadcast live at 7 a.m. every Sunday morning on Philadelphia’s WRNB 100.3 FM, with a simulcast on Magic 95.9 FM in Baltimore. You can also listen live on the Internet at WRNB 100.3 or on Magic 95.9 via streaming audio.

“The kids on the Mock Trial Team, usually 8 to 10 students every year, work unbelievably hard whether they win or lose,” said Beauchemin, who is also a non-practicing attorney. “So they developed a confidence for what they can do.”

The 2008 Overbrook High School Mock Trial team celebrates after winning the 2008 Pennsylvania Mock Trial championship. Image credit: Philadelphia Inquirer

And that confidence has been contagious. Out of the approximately 300 students who have been on the teams over the years, only one or two didn’t attend or graduate from college, he said. At least 13 of the former team members have gone on to become attorneys. The high number of college graduates among the team members makes him proud.

“We’re talking about dozens and dozens of kids who went to college and graduated in four years,” he said. “That’s pretty spectacular.”

And all of this happens in a high school and a school district that doesn’t often get awards and accolades for its performance in readying its students for life and work and success. That’s what makes it even more incredible, because by giving these kids a special opportunity to do something difficult and challenging and outside the norm, Beauchemin has been helping each of these students to find their niches and confidence and their own self-worth, one student and one team at a time.

Each year, the team enters mock trial competitions against other schools locally and they’ve gone on to national competitions three times. Overbrook teams have won 7 city championships in the last 15 years and 3 state championships in that time.

“There’s no other school in Philly that comes close to that,” Beauchemin said proudly. “This is a neighborhood high school, where kids can slip through the cracks.”

That’s what has amazed Beauchemin as he has coached the kids. “These kids just happen to show up in my classes each year,” he said. “They’re not specially picked. We do try-outs for the teams out of my history and street law classes. They all want to be on the teams.”

Once the team members are selected, it means lots of work for them, from preparing for cases to studying the law to preparing for the mock trials and a million related details. Much of that work is done in the hours after school, requiring an extra level of commitment. And from all of that preparation and toil comes incredible results.

“They are perfectly capable of beating anybody in the competitions and when they do, it is a shock to their systems,” Beauchemin said. “These are kids who year after year defeat schools that are very well-heeled schools” from across state and country.

“These are kids who are not chosen for anything in school,” and they are taking on tough competition and winning big time, he said. “This is the first thing they ever did that anyone picked them to do. When these kids are given that opportunity, they are amazing. They can beat anybody and have done so.”

The Overbrook High School Mock Trial teams have been featured in stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer several times over the last few years, including in April 2008 when the students won their last state championship.  There’s even a video clip on YouTube portraying that team and its successful results.

Watching that video still makes Beauchemin emotional.

“These are high school kids” on the video, he said. “They’re better than a lot of attorneys I’ve seen in a courtroom. They amaze me every year. I am in awe of many of them for what some of them have to go through in their lives and what they overcome to do what they do.”

When his student teams go up against teams from schools like Masterman or St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia, they are often competing with kids who come from privileged backgrounds. “My kids come from tremendously difficult situations,” he said. “The captain of the team last year was in a gang and was in legal trouble until he joined the team as a sophomore. I don’t think people realize all the things these kids have to overcome to do this.”

So what drives the students?

“They just look at this whole thing as a competition and they like the success they have,” Beauchemin said. “They see the trophies in the classroom from past teams and they’re aware that they have a chance, too. They’re seeing a process and a tradition. They can see that the kids before them succeeded so they know it’s possible.”

Now, after all of those years as the team’s coach, Beauchemin is passing the torch to someone else. He retired as a teacher on June 30 and Overbrook’s Mock Trial Teams will now have to find a new leader. Several former students have already offered to help, he said.

“I would hate to leave and see this really great tradition disappear,” he said.

We here at Court Radio and MyPhillyLawyer agree.

“We hear all these stories about kids who are lost in the system and here’s a program where kids rise to the occasion,” said Weitzman, the host of Court Radio and managing partner of MyPhillyLawyer. “When you challenge kids, they can really come through and shine.”

“We need more programs like this” in the city’s schools, Weitzman said. “Somehow this program survives with very little money. It one of the things we need to see more of in terms of corporate sponsorships involving man hours and money.”

To help with Overbrook’s teams, MyPhillyLawyer has made a commitment to work with the students on upcoming Mock Trial teams. In addition, the six students who were on the school’s Mock Trial Team this past school year will be employed in MyPhillyLawyer’s offices this summer, starting Monday, in paid positions. They’ll be getting cases ready for trial, calling and interviewing witnesses, examining documents and attending court appearances with attorneys, according to Weitzman.

And if a new coach for the team can’t be found, Weitzman said that he and his radio show co-host have agreed to step in and help coach the students next year.

“This program is a beacon in the Philadelphia Schools, where there are not a lot of beacons,” Weitzman said. “We want to be an example of a Philadelphia business that gives back to the kids of Philadelphia not only with money, but with our time. If a whole lot of businesses did something like this imagine how many kids would have a better chance for success.”

Money is tight for the city schools, with a budget gap estimated at $255 million to $282 million this year, according to a recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“This is a time when we have to come together as a community and give something back,” Weitzman said.

So be sure to tune in for Court Radio at 7 a.m. Sunday to learn more about the inspiring Overbrook High School Mock Trial Team and its success with co-hosts Dean Weitzman and David Rapoport and their special guests. And remember to call in with your own questions and comments.

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