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Olivia Gross: A Transformative Learning Experience

At 11 years old, Avenues junior Olivia Gross couldn’t quite pronounce the name Rehnquist, but she knew she desperately wanted a copy of his book, The Supreme Court. At more than 300 pages, it’s hard to imagine any 11-year-old getting through it. But Olivia was not intimidated. “I didn’t get a lot out of it back then but I read it until I understood it.”

As a student, and in life in general, Olivia believes strongly in being comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s where all transformative learning experiences are born. And there’s no better place to sit with the discomfort of challenge, push yourself and discover an outlet for your passions than in the classrooms at Avenues. This spring, with the guidance and support of her teachers, and by sheer will and determination, Olivia created and acted as editor in chief of Avenues’ first-ever law review, and, quite possibly, the first-ever law review published by an American high school.

With Olivia sitting at center, students pose with their copies of the published law review

Olivia always knew she loved the law, but she wanted to find her niche, her passion. And she found it in the Supreme Court. With an illustration of Ruth Bader Ginsberg tacked to the back of her cellphone case, she doesn’t want you to get any wrong impressions. RBG’s likeness may be seen on everything from coffee mugs, bumper stickers and tattoos, but Olivia is protective of her life-long admiration, poring over any legal writings she could get her hands on. Since her early readings of Rehnquist, she’d gone on to devour writings of other justices, including her favorite—the one who breaks down complex legal topics like no other—Elena Kagan. But it wasn’t until 7th grade that she discovered law reviews.

Olivia came to Avenues in 9th grade, after moving across the country from California. Though she admits there were incredible club opportunities on campus, there was nothing that related to constitutional law. “This is Avenues,” she says, “if you can’t find a club that suits your passion, you can start one.” She began her investigative work in Mastery as a freshman with Mr. Gutkowski, a class that allowed her the space and time in school to dedicate to building what would eventually become the Avenues Law Review Club. During this time, she reached out to various professors and law review heads to inform her work and she even began research to see whether a high school law review existed. But what came as a complete surprise was that no such clubs or journals could be found. Again undaunted, Olivia saw this as a challenge to create a publication at a high school level that had never been done before, while also allowing other students on campus to have a voice. After reaching out to friends, naming U.S. history and World Course teacher Ron Widelec as the club advisor and getting approval from administration, in the fall of 2017, the Avenues Law Review Club was born.

Traditionally, law reviews are the most impressive publication to be a part of when you’re in law school, containing a litany of responses to pressing legal issues of our times. The goal for each author is to write what has never been written before. Pretty lofty for high school, but to Olivia—captain of the varsity volleyball team with an incredible competitive streak—not at all an obstacle.

Open only to upper grades, the club is comprised of 17 students, many of whom are freshmen. Students gather once a week before school. “The best part for me is seeing how interested some of these kids are in the law. They can’t wait to write the next paper. They read the New York Times on their own. Being able to inspire students to do that, to leave something behind once I graduate, is incredible.”

While the club spent the first year of its existence engaging in planned debates, they spent much of the second year assembling their content for the law review. This is an enormous undertaking that involves a ton of writing and editing hours. The rationale behind going to print with the book is really quite simple. “Adults care about what kids think about,” Olivia says. We pause to reflect on the flurry of interest in student opinions and reactions to school violence and the March For Our Lives movement. “You can’t get a better example of what’s on our minds,” she continues, “than through a law review.”

Highlights of this year’s review include pieces on affirmative action, intellectual property of street art, police shooting acquittals, Title IX and Citizens United, among others. All penned, proofed and printed by students.

The long-term goal is to have professors’ work published, not just students’, inviting thought leaders and legal scholars from all over the country to submit. She has already been hard at work curating a law review speaker series and has invited prominent scholars from places like Harvard and the University of Chicago to speak to our students.

Of her teachers, Mr. Gutkowski, who is at the helm of the Mastery program, has been incredibly supportive, giving her the space to figure out what the law review and its club was going to look like. She also gives a resounding shout-out to advisor Ron Widelec. “He’s an encyclopedia,” she says, “it’s incredible having him as a resource.”

Next year, Olivia will be a senior, which will entail working on a variety of projects, continuing with her work on Law Review and preparing for the college application process. Having known since kindergarten that she wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice—a dream that is still alive today—she plans to study constitutional law. What remains certain is that Olivia will continue to challenge herself no matter what the future holds. One of my favorite quotes comes at the very end of our meeting, while packing up to leave. “If I’m the smartest person in the room,” she says, “I’m in the wrong room.”

Regardless, Olivia and her tireless work, her passion and her dedication have made an indelible mark on our campus. We sit and picture bookshelves lined with future volumes of the law review, future students transforming into legal scholars, or, at the very least, embracing challenge, sitting with it, learning from it, and pressing forward into the unknown, undeterred.