'Youth Dreamers' at United Opt Out

An enthusiastic group of three students, Jessica White, Iman Cuffe and Deja Joseph, accompanied teacher Kristina Berdan, gave a lunch time presentation on their organization "Youth Dreamers" at the United Opt Out conference in Florida. "Our mission is to provide a unique safe haven with opportunities for youth to accomplish personal goals, develop leadership potential, and participate in improving their communities."

Youth Dreamers, an organization in Baltimore, Maryland, started in 2001 with nine middle school students in a Community Action elective course at the Stadium School. They researched concerns in their community and identified the main issue as the increase in violence and recreation centers closing. Their goal was to build a community center for local youth which provided tutoring, art classes, community and business experience.

Active participants included 35 student managers, 3-4 high school supervisors, teachers and middle school students who provided homework help to younger kids. It took them nine years from dream to opening the Dream House. Along the way students had to learn vocational skills, zoning laws, working with community members and other life skills. Two of the original founders are still on the Board of Ed.

What started as a one day per week class turned into an all day project class for 5th - 8th graders. As the Common Core state standards (CCSS) and high stakes testing movement increased, most of their funding dried up because the funders diverted their resources to after school programs that promoted CCSS and high stakes testing. The sad part is the students were taking everything they learned in other classes and applied that information to real life situations in their project class.

Real life skills including public speaking and organizing are just two skills learned by the students. Loyola students helped the Youth Dreamers develop a strategic plan. Despite all their efforts and success they were forced to close the center in 2013. Project based learning was no longer a priority in education. The Youth Dreamers now rent their Dream House to a sister organization - The Baltimore Teacher Network (BTN) and wrote a book "I Am Not a Test Score: Lessons Learned from Dreaming." "Today members are dedicated to showing what's possible for young people in classrooms and communities." Through their book and presentations they hope to engage youth and adults in re-envisioning classrooms of JOY led by young people. They continue to seek out partners and ideas for new programs and projects and have protested testing at the Board of Education and travel to conferences to share their enthusiasm and listen to others opinions. "We measure success by the relationships we build." Jessica White said "Teachers feel scared to stand up but we don't have anything to lose."

This reporter was fascinated and extremely impressed by what these girls had accomplished despite opposition on many fronts. It's sad to see such a great program destroyed by the push of CCSS and high stakes testing. These amazing young women are articulate, confident and enthusiastic. Exactly the characteristics, in minorities, the 1% wants eliminated. This group needs to be heard by other youth organizations. What an inspiration for the future.


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