Diamond Taylor wants to change her neighborhood.
At age fourteen, she's already done a lot. She volunteers at a health clinic and a women's shelter, she knows how to apply for grants and address a city zoning board, and she works with a nonprofit group that helps other Baltimore kids.
She plans to take that experience, go to college, and become president of the United States.
That might sound ambitious for an eighth grader, but for students at Baltimore's Stadium School, it's just part of a curriculum that grooms them to become leaders. The school, part of Baltimore City Public Schools, was started in 1994 by a group of teachers and parents who wanted different options for their children.
"We want to produce students that change the world," says Ronald Shelley, the school's director since 1999 and one of its original teachers, who now oversees 225 students in grades 4-8.
The school's founders wanted to "create a curriculum that both impacted the community and at the same time tied the students to their community," he says, "meaning that after college, they would come back to the community as advocates and organizers and teachers and artists."
The school takes project-based learning to the extreme. Projects don't simply support the core academic subjects; they are their own subjects, offering students not just the chance find their strengths -- as a hairstylist, an artist, or a scientist -- but also the time to cultivate them. And in each class, there's a literal buzz as students clamor to talk about why they love their school.
They Have a Dream
Starting in sixth grade, students choose from thirteen project classes, including its most famous: the Youth Dreamers. Students have been setting up a youth center in a house the class bought in 2005, and in the five years since the class was established, it has evolved from a community-volunteer program to a nonprofit organization.
"This is the hardest-working project class," says Taylor, pointing to bulletin boards covering the back of the classroom. They're filled with colorful notes and charts, from the list of goals for the year and fundraising achievements to the colors students are considering for the youth center's exterior paint. Since 2001, Shelley says, the Youth Dreamers have raised about $400,000 toward their efforts, through donations from organizations and individuals, as well as fundraisers, including, bake sales, talent shows, benefit basketball games, galas, and auctions. (Grants, including $70,000 from the state Senate, have helped, too.)
On a typical class day once a week, students in the Youth Dreamers work on assorted tasks in the morning, such as writing thank-you notes to donors or sending them necessary tax information. In the afternoon, many head out to volunteer. Taylor often goes to My Sister's Place, a day shelter for women.
Taylor describes that experience as "really emotional. They have nowhere else to go." The students put on skits and bring gifts; for Valentine's Day, they brought teddy bears. "We light up their day when we come in there," she says.
That's the part of the class she loves -- the chance to make a difference. "Everything we do, it makes people happy," adds Taylor, in her third year with the Youth Dreamers. It's also helped fuel political aspirations that have driven her to want to change her neighborhood, clean up the trash, and keep kids off the streets.
And in her class, Taylor is learning much more than community-service skills. She talks about how she and her classmates went before the city zoning board, how students demolished and cleaned out parts of the house they bought, and how she had to dress up for a recent fundraising gala.
Kristina Berdan, who teaches the Youth Dreamers project class, says that in teaching this course, she's had to educate herself a great deal. When, in 2003, her students decided they wanted to form a nonprofit organization, she spent eight hours putting together a lesson.
"As a teacher, I've always tried to incorporate real-world curriculum, but it's still not the same as 'We can't get this house unless we pass through this step,'" says Berdan, who joined the faculty in 2000 as a seventh-grade language arts teacher.
Freedom to Create
The Stadium School operates like a charter school in that teachers and administrators have autonomy over curriculum. Being able to create her own curriculum, Berdan adds, offers a much better environment for everyone. "You take the state standards and you figure out what the students need to learn, and you figure out ways that you can teach it that really connect it to their world."
Named for its location near Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium, the school started with a group of parents and teachers concerned about their children being bussed to large middle schools 5 miles away. The idea was to build an intimate school in this mostly African American working-class neighborhood. There were a few bumps along the way, including temporary school housing miles from the community.
But in the twelve years since it began, the school has transformed from primarily a second-chance school to one that must turn down more than 200 applicants each year. Graduates of the Stadium School have gone on to be valedictorians of their high schools and to attend colleges such as the University of Maryland, Cincinnati's Xavier University, Purdue University, and even some Ivy League schools.
Unlike at other schools, students taking project classes commit to them for at least a year, meeting all day on Wednesdays. With thirteen options, "they're going to find something their good at, whether it's art, whether it's landscaping, whether it's zoology, and they can build a career path with it and consequently become leaders," Director Ronald Shelley says. "They're not contrived leaders; they're developing leaders through a curriculum that allows them to identify their gifts and talents."
The project classes include the Zoo Exchange, where students learn about wild animals; Audio-Visual Computer Technology Club, in which children can learn to build, repair, or upgrade computers, design Web pages, or create instructional multimedia programs; and Landscaping, in which kids plant trees, shrubs, and perennials as a school beautification exercise.
In the Stadium School Visionaries, students learn to write business plans for their future endeavors. Seventh grader Shuriah Casey, for one, makes brightly beaded necklaces and bracelets she plans to sell in New York City's garment district during an upcoming class trip.
"Ever since I was little, I was making jewelry, and I think it'll be something good to do," she says. "This will help me in my future life of being an entrepreneur."
One floor up, the National Academic League, a scholastic-competition class, practices for an upcoming meet. (At most schools, the NAL is an after-school club.) Students essentially learn loads of facts to prepare them for competitions against other middle schools, and they've had to learn the hard way what it's like if they don't study, teacher George Roycroft says, citing a big recent loss to a top competitor. Once the season is over, students will turn to community-service tasks, such as tutoring and helping out in the nearby elementary school.
Roycroft plays off his student's competitive natures and their individual academic strengths. Fifth-grader Darien Randolph, for example, is the go-to guy on space questions. "They call me 'the Little Astronomer,' because I've been studying about space since I was five," Randolph says.
Roycroft, in his first year at the school, likes the way project classes give students more than just rote subjects. His students, he says, see possibilities by being in his class -- some say they'll even try out for special children's and teenagers' episodes of the television game show Jeopardy.
A Legacy of Learning
Stadium students also get to see how their projects evolved in the years before they joined them. For the Youth Dreamers, each class has had a hand in the process, from deciding to purchase a house in 2001 to doing so in 2005. This year's Landscape students show off the trees planted by a previous class as they talk about the raised beds they recently put in.
Students are evaluated on a scale of one to four and must earn a three or four in their core classes to advance to the next grade. They also put together an exhibition of their best work from the year in the core subjects and the project class -- Ronald Shelley likens it to a dissertation -- and present it to a small panel of their parents, a teacher, a community member, and a few others. The exhibition gives students the chance to show off some of what they've mastered, and can include artwork or a research paper that offers good examples of subject-verb agreement.
The school's success has come with some compromises for its original vision. For many years, the school was run by teachers, with no real administration and a student body of just eighty children. Teachers say the tiny student-teacher ratio and collective decision making created a collaborative and nurturing environment for the community's kids.
But in order to develop students who will go on to college, Shelley adds, the school has had to become more organized, adding teachers and administrators, expanding the project classes, and strengthening the core academics while trying to retain the intimate feel. Students have also come from outside the stadium neighborhood as the school's academic reputation has grown.
Over the years, though, the school has changed lives, and not just for its students. Once she got involved with the Youth Dreamers, teacher Kristina Berdan says, it "literally took over my life." This year, she took a leave of absence to work solely on the nonprofit as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Because of its scope, Youth Dreamers now has other volunteers, including a few former students who want to see through to fruition the project they were involved in when they attended the school.
"To see it all happen, and to have generations of kids, it's just thrilling," Berdan adds. "It's something I never expected. I thought I would be a regular teacher forever."
Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.