Project 540: Students seeking more than a revolution

The first thing they have to do is get to the classroom, and it's not always easy. Students at Dorchester High School in Boston maneuver past heaps of shattered glass in the parking lot, up a staircase littered with soda cans, and through an elaborate system of metal detectors at an entrance that looks more like a prison than a school.

Yet once the bell rings, members of Project 540 quickly shrug off the principal's message that crackles through the loudspeaker - that students remaining in the corridor will be "processed, suspended, and sent home" - and turn their attention back to one another.

Today is an atypical day - they are listening to fellow classmates, not the usual teacher or school administrator.

In its first year, Project 540 - with a presence in 250 high schools nationwide - was created for students who hope to spark improvement in their schools and communities. The premise: A 540-degree turn is a revolution and a half. Talking about problems is not enough; it's time to pose some solutions.

"To start us off, name a place where you feel the most comfortable," says Erma Drigo, one of six student facilitators elected by her peers to head Dorchester's project in Boston.

At first, the question meets silence. Then, quietly, a girl answers, "I get it at home." From the back, a deeper voice calls out, "On the basketball court." Others agree and exchange high-fives. But Erma expects more.

"Think about what makes these places the most nurturing," she says.

Soon, the class divides into five groups and the students huddle around poster-size papers, listing recommendations for removing what they consider the biggest obstacles to a healthy learning environment.

Project 540 members meet throughout the year to draft an action plan by April and present it to school administrators.

"The long-term goal is to revive the civic mission of the American high school," says Rick Battistoni, founder and director of Project 540 and a professor of political science at Providence College in Rhode Island.

Once students have been proactive in their school setting, organizers hope, they will carry that confidence and activism into their lives as voting adults.

"There's a real hunger among students to have a real voice, particularly in the schools and surrounding communities," Mr. Battistoni says. "But we're getting a sense that there's interest in the larger picture as well."

But the larger picture isn't always pretty.

When Dorchester High students first met in the fall to discuss what is most important to them, drugs, alcohol, violence, and sex topped the list.

Additional concerns included poor lunch food, dirty bathrooms, and sniper shootings (violence in the Washington area was still fresh in their minds).

Applying to college and affording it appeared last on the project members' list - a sign that some students confront problems so immediate and so distracting that education is by no means their only focus.

"We need their insights into what issues exist in their schools, communities, and the larger world to strengthen high schools," Battistoni says.

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