Two years ago, Fatima Mohamed, 15, was a shy seventh-grader at Anwatin Junior High School in Minneapolis who thought success in school meant nothing more than passing the next test.
Then she encountered Project Success and was cast in two plays it produced: "The Little Shop of Horrors" and "The Wiz." She also attended a professional theatrical performance with her parents for the first time, free of cost. She made friends she never expected to have, discovered abilities and inspiration she never would have seen on her own, and "felt a part of the whole thing" for the first time.
"It gave me courage and more self-esteem," Fatima said. "To me, school was just, 'Get grades.' Now it's, what do you do with it?" She's looking forward to going on the Project Success college tour in a few years, to help her answer that question.
Fatima's story is being replicated among thousands of students in grades six through 12 at the nine public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul served by Project Success. This unique, privately funded, Minnesota-grown career planning program is quietly living up to its name. It deserves wider recognition and more funding, in order to grow.
Minneapolis native Adrienne Diercks founded the program 15 years ago, out of a sense that many young people drift aimlessly through their school years (she'd been one of them). They devote too little effort to discovering passions, dreaming about the future, and setting goals for making dreams come true.
To change that, Diercks devised a series of experiences aimed at instilling in teens a sense of direction. Monthly in-school workshops are part of the regimen. So is theater -- both performing and observing. Diercks discovered early that theater is a potent tool for self-discovery -- and that 27 professional theaters in the Twin Cities are willing to donate tickets for students and their families.
"Our purpose isn't to put on a play or teach theater," Diercks emphasized. Rather, it's to use theater to engage students in serious career planning. "We're doing things that allow students to feel empowered and successful, to get to know people they wouldn't otherwise know, and to challenge themselves."
For some Project Success students, the theater bug bites hard. Southwest High School junior Kyle Newsome says he's "never stopped being in a play" since he was cast in a Project Success show in seventh grade. He plans to study sociology and fine arts in college. Project Success counseling and college tours will help him decide where to go next.
Educators are bombarded these days with calls for more STEM -- that is, for greater emphasis on teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There's no question STEM education is crucial, if American kids are to keep up with global economic competition.
But the many testimonials to Project Success offer a needed caveat: Schools may find a STEM emphasis counter-productive if it comes at the expense of the arts and humanities. A guided exploration of those fields can give young people the motivation and confidence required for dedicated pursuit of complex disciplines like STEM. The Project Success formula is working; it should be working for more students.