Wayne Law alumna uses legal background to inspire high school students
Alycia Chase is an award-winning high school teacher of social studies – and an attorney with a law degree from Wayne State University Law School.
She uses her ties to Wayne Law to inspire students in her district and beyond through initiatives sparked by the law school’s Keith Students Youth Civil Rights Conference.
Chase, a 1993 Wayne Law alumna and West Bloomfield resident, in October was named High School Teacher of the Year by the Michigan/Great Lakes Social Studies Conference.
“Alycia is a leader who is committed to helping kids, and she has a proven track record of innovation and instructional effectiveness,” said Thomas Shelton, principal of West Bloomfield High School, where Chase has been teaching since 1999.
Chase sponsors the school’s Law and Politics Club and Model United Nations and Mock Trial teams. She started WBHS’s Teen Court Program, is part of the Oakland Schools Social Studies Leadership Team and helped write the high school civics and U.S. history curriculum for the county’s educators.
In November 2012, Chase brought students from her Law and Politics Club to the Keith Students Youth Civil Rights Conference, an annual event sponsored by Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Center for Peace & Conflict Studies and Keith Students for Civil Rights. The daylong program for teens about race is to help them bridge their differences, bust stereotypes and build foundations for a better world.
“At this conference, students from public and private schools, suburban and inner-city schools, came together to discuss some very difficult issues,” Chase said. “After some deep discussions, the students came up with ideas on ways we could come together as one community. Some other teachers and I were so inspired by the ideas, that, on our own, we met again one rainy Saturday in an office building in Detroit. That is where something really cool happened and the Block by Block initiative was born.”
The Block by Block program included a student exchange in January 2013 between some of Chase’s teens at West Bloomfield and teacher Jonathan Hui’s students at Denby High School in Detroit.
“The idea was for the students to experience a normal school day in someone else’s shoes,” Chase said. “The students attended each other’s school for a day, not as special guests, but as if they were a member of the student body. The students experienced not just the different schools and communities, they also experienced the differences in educational facilities and opportunities. It was a huge success and an amazing and eye-opening experience.”
Later that month, Chase took the idea further.
“I invited the teachers, administrators and students from the civil rights conference to join us at the West Bloomfield Martin Luther King United We Walk event,” she said. “Over 50 students from Denby High School, Cranbrook (Kingswood High School in Bloomfield Hills), Northwestern (High School in Detroit) and University Liggett (School in Grosse Pointe Woods) got together with my students in my classroom, and we had a powerful debrief on the student exchange and the civil rights conference that we had attended together. The students then all marched together in the walk, and they also spoke at the candlelight vigil during the program. It was so moving to see these students from such varied backgrounds join together and build bonds.”
The experience ended with a shared supper and a commitment to continue the venture. Another Block by Block exchange took place in May 2013 with Chase’s school and Northwestern High School in Detroit, and another exchange with Denby is being planned for the upcoming school year.
Yesenia Jimenez, now a student at Harvard University, had Chase as her teacher for Advanced Placement Government and helped work on the first Block by Block initiative.
“I am extremely passionate about ethnic and racial issues, especially when it comes to their effects on education,” Jimenez said. “When Ms. Chase presented me with an opportunity to help raise awareness of and correct these problems, I was thrilled to know that a teacher at my high school cared enough about these issues. The initiative helped students at our school realize that other public schools do not offer the same opportunities that our school does. Ms. Chase is the most remarkable teacher I’ve had the pleasure to know. She’s someone I look up to, even to this day. We still keep in touch. Ms. Chase doesn’t just know how to teach and help her students learn the subject, but she teaches them how to think critically and how to learn.”
Chase, who wanted to be a teacher as a child, said her legal education and her experience as an attorney have made her a more effective educator.
“Most importantly, it helps to bring a real-world perspective to the subjects that I teach, whether I am teaching about something related to law or simply helping students to see the real-life importance and relevance of strong writing, speaking, test taking and organizational skills,” she said. “I also believe the students connect to me differently because of my background, and they love when I can share a legal story or unique insight to something that we are discussing in class.”
She really didn’t plan to be a teacher when she went to law school.
“I graduated from undergrad (at Michigan State University) with a business degree, and I had honestly envisioned myself in the role of a high-powered litigation attorney for the rest of my career,” Chase said. “In fact, I loved many things about being a trial attorney, including the excitement, fast pace and challenge. However, after successfully practicing law for a few years with some amazing firms in Michigan, Maryland and Washington, D.C., doing everything from criminal defense and prosecution to insurance defense litigation to business litigation and real estate-related law, I realized that I had a nagging passion for teaching.”
She took advantage of a master’s degree program at the University of Michigan that included teaching certification and could be completed in one year, graduating in 1999.
“I have to admit that I was quite cocky when I made the change from practicing law to teaching,” Chase said. “I looked at the school day hours and the subject matter and thought it would be a breeze. Ironically, I had many of the stereotypes about teaching that many of our policymakers have today. Wow, was I wrong!”
Fourteen years into teaching, Chase knows just how demanding the profession can be, she said.
“It is like preparing for multiple mini-jury trials every day, complete with exhibits and convincing arguments to win a tough jury over, except you do not have any support staff to help you prepare,” Chase said. “Teaching high school can be intense.”
And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Empowering my students with the knowledge and skills to make positive change is a very important aspect of my teaching philosophy,” Chase said. “My students have used the skills and the knowledge that I have provided to empower themselves by getting involved in campaigns, starting petitions, researching and proposing solutions to local issues, reaching out to politicians, running their own local candidate forums, starting youth advocacy councils and much more. This is where the true rewards of teaching are found.”
The students in her Advanced Placement Government class are required to get involved in a current political campaign and to participate in local government observations through attending court cases, school board or township meetings, political events or another sort of action. Her students participate in a Teen Court program she coordinates through the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, as well, and are trained to serve as jurors and actual attorneys for first-time juvenile misdemeanor defendants.
“They learn more about the law and the court system through this real-life experience than they could possibly learn through a simulation or in a classroom,” Chase said. “Real experiences are necessary for real meaningful discussions, and they reinforce the curriculum in a way that no stationary classroom can provide.”
As a law student, Chase had real-life educational experiences of her own.
“While at Wayne, two of my favorite experiences were competing in the Student Trial Advocacy Program and volunteering at the Free Legal Aid Clinic,” she said. “I would also highly recommend the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (summer intern) program. Not only was the work incredibly rewarding, I learned more in my time at the Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office about trial practice in one summer than many of my colleagues learn in their entire careers.”
Today, she’s an inspiration to her high school students. And they are inspirations to her.
“My true heroes are the students I teach,” Chase said. “They have taught me more about life than anything else. Like my own children, they make me incredibly proud when they achieve new successes, whether that may be getting accepted to Harvard or just completing high school. I am amazed at just how hard they work, the risks they take and the obstacles they overcome.”
After they graduate, many of her students keep in touch with the teacher-attorney.
“Many of them have gone on to have successful careers in a variety of fields, from attorneys to politicians to doctors to movie producers and more,” Chase said. “Most importantly, whatever they are doing, I know they have the skills and knowledge necessary to be productive and upstanding citizens who know how to have their voices heard.”
Teacher Alycia Chase sits with some of her government students from West Bloomfield High School in the jury box in the Detroit courtroom of Judge Bernard Friedman in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan. Chase, a 1993 alumna of Wayne State University Law School, brings students to courtrooms as part of their lessons.
Federal Judge Bernard Friedman chats with West Bloomfield High School teacher Alycia Chase, who is also an attorney, on May 21, when she brought government students to his Detroit courtroom as part of a field trip.
Teacher-attorney Alycia Chase is surrounded by some of her students. She considers her students her greatest inspiration. In October, Chase was named High School Teacher of the Year by the Michigan/Great Lakes Social Studies Conference.