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Class path to learning, but don't call it school


Looking jurors in the eye and holding note cards in one hand, Brad Booker delivered a closing argument worthy of any attorney.

He reminded the jury what the civil case was about - a child badly injured in an accidental shooting, his father suing for damages. Booker cited the relevant law. He argued that all adults with guns must know "exactly" where the firearms are stored or risk liability.

Then the 11-year-old sat down amid a gaggle of other boys and girls, ending his week of "law school" at Howard Community College's summer program for young people.

Booker - who jumped into his role as a plaintiff attorney with unrestrained enthusiasm - saw it as a step toward his goal of becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

For many of the children signed up for Kids on Campus classes at HCC this summer, the activities are appealing - even during vacation - because they are most definitely not school: no textbooks, no tests.

"You can focus on your own interests," said Mitali Thakor, 13, who lives in Clarksville and has spent three summers in Kids on Campus. "I have fun doing this, and I'm not bored sitting at home."

The 57 classes running from June 19 through Aug. 11 range in topic from the practical - speed reading - to the imaginative, such as three-dimensional art and monsters in the movies. They're designed to hit on subjects that students wouldn't have had much time for in regular school or might have missed entirely.

"I think it's important for the kids to feel that they're on summer break," said Sara Baum, who runs Kids on Campus and is HCC's coordinator of lifelong learning. "We're real cognizant of the fact that it is summer - there are no grades.

"But learning continues," she said. "We don't want those minds to go to waste over the summer."

Kids on Campus' roots go back to 1986, when HCC offered short classes for middle schoolers during holidays.

Now the program runs year-round for ages 7 to 17. The summer classes are most popular - and this year, registration hit a record high of more than 1,700.

"It's grown steadily," Baum said.

The HCC classes aren't akin to those college-run programs limited to especially bright children. Kids on Campus is open to anyone willing to pay the registration fee - one-week courses cost $100 each, and two-week courses are $195 - and able to get on the list before it fills up.

"They are the 'everyman' version" of genius-kid summer programs, Baum said. "We feel everyone gains."

In the Amateur Architect class last month, children spent a morning making horrific faces out of a spongy material called Model Magic. The result: gargoyles, the Gothic art form for scaring away evil spirits that doubled as rain spouts.

"Focus on making the features very dramatic," said instructor Michell Salamony, who teaches art at Longfellow Elementary School in Columbia during the year.

Janet Savin-Murphy, 14, pinched and pulled her ball of material into a cyclops. The Ellicott City resident, who wants to be an architect, imagined rainwater trickling down the extremely long tongue. "It'll look like it's drooling," she said with a grin.

That afternoon in philosophy, middle schoolers wrestled with the ethics of physician-assisted suicide, contemplated God and read Plato.

"Making moral and ethical decisions is difficult if you think about them a lot," instructor Rich Walter said after a debate about whether being in terrible pain from a terminal illness is an acceptable reason for euthanasia.

"Philosophy doesn't give you answers," he added. "It just gives you questions."

In the Legal Eagles class last month, middle schoolers learned as much about the intricacies of law as can be squeezed into a few afternoons, and then stepped into roles for a mock trial.

The case: a father suing his former wife for failing to keep a gun out of the hands of their 13-year-old son, who accidentally shot his young half-brother.

The defense team argued the father was at fault because he left the boys alone and had encouraged his 13-year-old's interest in guns.

The plaintiff's attorneys countered that the mother knew the gun was in her house and didn't take necessary precautions.

Watching over the proceedings, and ruling on objections, was teacher Janine Kucik, dressed in a black graduation gown and using an orange toy hammer as a gavel.

Her class took the assignment seriously.

At the end, children had to step out of their roles as witnesses or attorneys and act as jurors - but they couldn't help arguing passionately for their side.

It was a hung jury.

"OK, OK, obviously emotions are heated," Kucik said, calming the participants.

"Juries don't always agree," she added. "It's not an easy task."

Afterward, 10-year-old Nathaniel Null said it seemed to him that both parents were at fault, although he couldn't decide who was more to blame.

But he was certain that the course was worth his valuable vacation time.

"I wouldn't think of it as school, I would think of it as camp," said Null, a Catonsville resident. "I feel that I know more than I did before, and I feel good about that."

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