Seven Northwestern High School seniors are learning the intricacies of real estate law in an effort to take back vacant housing in their community from absentee owners.
Each Wednesday this school year, the students -- most of them members of Mary Otho's first period social studies elective in criminal and civil law -- are excused from classes and instead spend 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the legal clinic, studying the law and learning how to use property records.
This month, the students took their map of vacant properties in Northwest Baltimore to the Park-Reist Corridor Coalition, a citizens group. The students proposed that the organization go to court to strip some houses on Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue from their owners and put the buildings into receivership. The proposal was so well received that two of the seven students joined the coalition's board.
"These vacant houses are bringing down the community," says Natasha Elaine Thomas, 19, who lives in Northwest and is thinking about joining the Army or the Marines after high school. "Some people here are moving out of the community, and it's mostly because of the vacant houses."
Michael Millemann, director of the clinical law program at the university, said that there hasn't been any action taken against building owners yet but that the students will be assisting student attorneys when that happens.
The program -- a joint project of the coalition, the legal clinic at the University of Maryland Law School and Northwestern High -- is being offered this year for the first time. It grew out of discussions between Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, coalition president Bev Thomas, and officials at the clinic. In October, they contacted Northwestern High and found 34-year teaching veteran Ms. Otho, who asked students she knew to volunteer.
"The kids were very excited," she said. "After the first day down there, they thought they were lawyers already."
The students have two instructors: Mr. Millemann, who teaches the students on Wednesday afternoons, and second-year law student Olivia Cammack, who leads the morning sessions.
A grandmother of four, Ms. Cammack, 49, had been a computer consultant to the federal and state government for over 25 years when "I decided I was bored." A bar she started in the city, Tikki's, didn't work out, so she decided to go back to school.
"She's a role model to all the women in the group," says LaTanya M. Beckett, 18. "There are some people who tell us that females can't be attorneys, but she shows us an example."
The classes consist of mock trials, research of property records, instruction in how to talk to government officials, and basic paralegal training. The students are also well versed in the complicated process for reclaiming vacant housing from its owners and giving the properties to a receiver, who can then sell to a nonprofit developer. The developer, in turn, rehabilitates the property and auctions it to those who need the housing.
So far, the most popular part of the Wednesday sessions has been a mock court hearing for a vacant housing landlord, during which the seniors played judge and attorney. Some of the students say they are considering careers in law, and Nathaniel D. Bond Jr. says the mock session boosted his considerable ambitions.
"I watched as much of the O. J. Simpson trial as I could," says Mr. Bond, who played an attorney. "And when I had to question my client and the nosy neighbor, I just used my wits, and remembered what Johnnie Cochran did."
"He caught one of my witnesses in a lot of lies," says 17-year-old Tanika A. Wise, who was the opposing lawyer, "and it was difficult to come back and rehabilitate the witness."