ORLANDO — At lunchtime, the student lounge inside Florida A&M University's law school bustles with students eating tacos and enjoying a free lesson in salsa dancing. Upstairs, the library hums with the sounds of students scribbling notes and turning the pages of their law books. Students say they no longer have to wait nervously for their financial aid checks to arrive, and their grades are issued promptly at semester's end.
The spirit is upbeat, determined. Focused.
It wasn't always this way.
Student body president James Simmons calls it "a 180-degree turn" from what he found when he arrived in fall 2007. Back then FAMU law, one of just a handful of historically black U.S. law schools, had no bookstore or student lounge. The financial aid office was understaffed, the faculty too slow in posting grades.
The law school was struggling under the weight of unstable leadership, faculty tensions, media scrutiny, and arguably unrealistic enrollment expectations from state lawmakers who reopened the long-shuttered school in 2002 with $30 million in taxpayer money.
But in the nearly two years since dean LeRoy Pernell arrived, students, faculty and administrators say the mood has shifted from uncertainty and frustration to optimism.
The biggest endorsement of Pernell's tenure so far came this summer, when national accreditors finally gave FAMU law their official seal of approval. "It's like someone took a foot off their necks around here," Darryl Jones, associate dean for research and faculty development, said of the postaccreditation mood.
Leaders of FAMU, based in Tallahassee, were in Orlando over the weekend to celebrate the accreditation — even as challenges persist.
"It's like when a baby learns to walk. We're walking now, but where will we walk to?" said associate dean Jeremy Levitt, who left Florida International University's 6-year-old law school to start the international law program here.
"I believe we can be the best law school in Florida, but it will take some years," he said.
Some years, and a lot of work, administrators concede.
Passage rates for the Florida Bar exam remain a concern. The latest results showed that less than 53 percent of FAMU graduates who took the exam in July passed it — slightly better than the performance on the February exam but still below the state average of 80 percent.
Pernell last week called the results "disappointing," but said he is confident FAMU's revamped preparation for the exam and academic success program will show results in the February 2010 exam.
Pernell also is working to improve recruiting and marketing efforts so FAMU admissions officials can choose from a stronger pool of students who are academically prepared for the rigors of law school and the Bar exam.
The median score on the Law School Admission Test for incoming students this fall was 146, and the median grade point average was 3.07. The median LSAT for law school admission is about 150 nationwide. FIU's law school, which opened the same year as FAMU's, had an entering class this fall with a median LSAT of 154 and a median GPA of 3.4.
"The challenge is that we want to cast our net broadly, but we want the best and brightest," said Pernell, 59, an Ohio State law graduate. "Just because you desire to go to law school does not mean you are going to be successful as a lawyer. The LSAT and GPA aren't the only tool, but they are tools that cannot be ignored."
Attracting top faculty
Pernell dealt with low Bar exam passage rates and public scrutiny long before he arrived at FAMU.
When he became dean of Northern Illinois University's law school in 1997, the school had some of the lowest passage rates in the state. He recruited stronger students, reevaluated the coursework, and instituted a Bar exam preparation program.
A decade later, when he left for FAMU, Northern Illinois law's graduates were performing some 20 percentage points better on the Bar exam. The pass rate in July 2008 was 95 percent, the highest in the state.
"Getting your students to perform is not an overnight thing," Pernell said. "Northern Illinois was something that happens over time. And I'm encouraged when I see that, in terms of what can happen here."
Pernell said one of the greatest weaknesses he found upon arriving at FAMU was the number of faculty and their experience level.
"We needed more troops in the trenches," he said. "The school had not been successful at attracting top faculty."
Armed with his own reputation and academic connections — and the assurance that, unlike previous deans, he was at FAMU to stay — he recruited 26 new faculty and administrators, bringing the number of faculty from just 28 in fall 2007 to 46 today.
"I went to people I was confident in, who had proven records," Pernell said. "And that helped the faculty already here."
Among them: Jeremy Levitt, former director of the Program for Human Rights and Global Justice at FIU law school who has worked as a legal consultant in Liberia, Ethiopia and South Africa.
"I have a Ph.D. from Cambridge; I don't have to be here," Levitt said. "But I came because I am excited about the future and the impact we can have."
Nation's most diverse
U.S. News & World Report in April lauded FAMU law school as the most diverse in the country.
The school's student body is 41 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic, and 36 percent white.
Of the first-year class of 233 students, nearly 30 percent are part-timers who juggle work and family with evening law classes in torts and contracts.
"It gives you different perspectives," said Simmons, the student body president. "We have a lot of students who didn't come here right from undergrad. It makes class more interesting."
First-year student Allison Kreiger, 26, was hesitant about enrolling in FAMU law. She said that changed when she visited campus last year and met faculty and students.
"I have three people in my classes who are definitely over 50," said Kreiger, a University of Florida public relations graduate from Orlando. "I can always turn to them for insight."
"We can look at each other and say, 'Yes we are going to make it.' And we're going to get good jobs."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.