High School Law Course

High school-level Street Law courses strive to empower young people to be active, engaged citizens by equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully participate and create change in their communities. The following pages are intended to support teachers wishing to start a new high school law course or strengthen an existing one.

What is a Street Law Course? 

Since 1975, social studies teachers across the country have taught Street Law courses to high school students. These courses teach young people about law that is practical and relevant to their lives. Street Law courses strive to empower young people to be active, engaged citizens by equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully partcipate and create change in their communities. 

Often the courses are simply called "Street Law." However, across the country the courses take on many names, including "Law and the Legal System" and "The American Legal System." The course is typically offered as an elective and uses Street Law: A Course in Practical Law as its foundational text and curriculum. The text is currently in its 10th edition and is published and sold by McGraw-Hill Education.

Street Law, Inc. authors the text and its ancillary materials, develops supplementary resources that can be used to enhance law and other social studies courses, and supports teachers through professional development. 

In most cases, these elective law classes are taught at the high school level; however, with adaptation, it is possible to teach many of the course's topics to middle and elementary school students. Most of Street Law's resources can be modified for various age groups. Other organizations also offer high quality law-related education resources for younger students.

Teachers may also consider integrating sections of the Street Law curriculum into an existing social studies course, such as civics or U.S. government.

Street Law's curriculum and resources can support a variety of social studies needs, including aligning with a number of Common Core English Language Arts literacy standards.

Benefits of a Street Law Course

A Street Law course benefits young people in numerous ways! It provides them with practical, relevant content that they can use in their daily lives, while developing skills that are important for civic and workplace success. 

Relevant Curriculum

The Street Law curriculum was developed as a practical course in law and legal issues for high school students. It is filled with high-quality content that applies directly to students’ lives. Relatable content helps promote student engagement and active participation, which contributes to both student achievement and an interest in the law. For teachers in search of student-centered curriculum, Street Law activities can meet a number of instructional needs. (Learn more about the Street Law textbook.)

Civic Mission of Schools

The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is a coalition of over 70 national civic learning, education, civic engagement and business groups committed to improving the quality and quantity of civic learning in American schools. The Campaign's goal is to increase and improve civic learning in grades K-12 by working for policies that implement the recommendations in a 2011 report, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. 

Both reports call on policy makers to recognize the importance of expanding and strengthening school-based civic education programs as a means of sustaining our democratic traditions. The Street Law curriculum supports this premise: not only does the Street Law curriculum promote legal understanding, it nurtures democratic principles such as active participation, respect for equality, and thoughtful deliberation.

Common Core State Standards

The Street Law course provides authentic context that helps students develop the reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills that are central to the Common Core. A Street Law elective course will provide students with opportunities to demonstrate proficiency within the English Language Arts Literacy standards. Students who take part in Street Law activities discuss and write about current and controversial issues, engage in simulations of democratic practices, receive pertinent civic instruction, and learn how to formulate arguments in support of policies they advocate. (Learn more about how Street Law aligns with the Common Core State Standards.)

Community Connections

There are many opportunities throughout the Street Law curriculum to either bring community resources into the classroom or to travel outside the classroom to connect students to their local legal community. While standards alignment is important, so too is the opportunity for students to see real life examples of how the legal community functions. Adding community connections to an already rich legal curriculum can bring the law to life for your students, while giving students the opportunity to consider possible careers in law, law enforcement, and government.



Steps for Starting a Street Law Course

Step 1: Initial Considerations

Before you try to start a Street Law course at your school, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is there a need? Are students not learning enough about law in their other courses? (The answer to these questions is usually yes, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.)
  2. What is the process for starting/piloting a new course? Can I get it approved?
  3. Is there a demand? Are there enough interested students who will sign up for and take the course?
  4. Do I have the resources? Do I have the time and does my school system have the money to develop a new course and purchase texts and other supplies?
  5. Would a Street Law course meet my school’s curricular needs? Are there any specialized topics I might need to add in order to meet that need?

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Step 2: Determine the Best Structure for Your Course

Every Street Law course is different. They vary based on the interests of the teachers and the students, the resources available, curricular goals, and assessments.

In most school districts, law is taught as a one-semester elective. There is no prescription for how to structure a one semester course, though typically a semester is broken into four or five major units of study. Below are some units that are commonly covered. Keep in mind that it would be impossible and ill-advised to try to tackle all of these topics; just pick three or four that you think are important.

  • Introduction to law and the legal system (defining law, lawmaking, advocacy, settling disputes, the court system, and lawyers)
  • Criminal law and juvenile justice (crime in the United States, introduction to criminal law, crimes against a person, property crimes, defenses, criminal justice processes, proceedings before trial, trials, sentencing and corrections, juvenile justice, and law and terrorism)
  • Torts (introduction to civil wrongs, intentional torts, negligence, strict liability, and public policy)
  • Consumer and housing law (contracts, warranties, credit and other financial services, deceptive sales practices, smart consumerism, cars, and housing)
  • Family law (marriage, parents and children, foster care and adoption, separation, divorce, custody, and government support)
  • Individual rights and liberties (introduction to constitutional law, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, expression in special places, freedom of religion, due process, right to privacy, discrimination, rights and responsibilities in the workplace, and immigration law)

In some cases teachers create a two-semester course, where the second semester course can either stand alone or build upon the first. For example, the first semester could be about basic principles of law, an overview of the justice system, criminal law, and/or constitutional law. The second semester could be about family law, contracts, housing, workplace law, or conflict resolution. Alternatively, the second semester could take the first semester topics more in-depth. If that is the kind of course you want to teach, you may need to establish prerequisites for semester two. 

One advantage to separating the courses (with no prerequisites) is either course can be offered in either semester, which gives more students the chance to take law. 

Sample Syllabi

Here are some sample syllabi provided by law teachers in our network:

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Step 3: What

The following links will help you develop and refine the content for your Street Law course.

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Step 4: Who

Who Will Take the Course?

In many cases, students and teachers who love government also love law. So it is natural for teachers who are developing a law course to “market” it to students in their government classes.

It is important to share your vision for the course with your guidance department. In some schools, counselors only steer kids to law classes who have already been in trouble with the law, so they can get to know the system from the “other” side. In other schools, teachers have created a culture that only the top, most advanced students take the course, so they can eventually enroll in a prestigious law school.

It is our view that robust law classes should have a combination of students with different backgrounds, skills, and experiences with the law. They can learn from each other and will benefit from understanding law in their lives. Furthermore, our democracy depends on all people understanding law and participating fully in civic life.

How Can You Recruit Them?

While many teachers would love to start a Street Law class, we know it will not happen unless enough students register for the class. School administrators typically cannot support any elective course that only has a few students enrolled (though some may support a pilot year.)

To create a buzz about the class, you might consider hanging posters up at school; using the school’s listserv, newspaper, and social media outlets; and making announcements over the public address system or via video announcements to let students know there could be a new course at your school and whom they should see for more information. Your marketing materials could include field trips you anticipate offering, special activities like mock trials you might include in the course, special content experts you intend to bring to your class, and opportunities students might have to shadow someone who works in the field of law. Another form of outreach is to set up a table in the cafeteria or in a busy part of the school with a sign promoting the course and where you can sit to answer questions. In some schools, in the weeks prior to registration, teachers who offer elective courses spend a few minutes in their colleagues’ required classes telling students about the elective options. 

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Step 5: How

Strategies for Effective Teaching

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Cathy Ruffing

Senior Director, Teacher Professional Development Programs & Curriculum