NEW YORK — You could hear the laughter from the lobby even before entering the auditorium, where 150 children were watching their peers perform vignettes from Shakespeare.
The program had a distinctly contemporary wrinkle. Most of the students at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School in Chinatown are children of immigrants whose first language is Cantonese.
"I want to thank Shakespeare for writing all those plays and all those sonnets," said Annie Tan, 13. "He's the one that made this show possible."
The school's Shakespeare Festival was also made possible by Champions of Active Learning, which provides middle schools with training and money for creative projects.
What sets CAL-funded projects apart is their focus on middle schools with diverse populations and disadvantaged, low-income youth, said Wendy Puriefoy, president of Public Education Network. The community-based education group has provided help to 200 middle schools in more than a dozen cities nationwide, including the Accelerated School, Arroyo Seco Museum Science Magnet School, and Daniel Webster and Thomas Alva Edison middle schools, all in Los Angeles; Nobel Middle School in Northridge, and Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco.
That age is "a particularly challenging time" in an adolescent's life, Puriefoy said. Once children are engaged in a project that encourages curiosity, exploration, creativity and social skills development, "they're more likely to stick with you to learn."
All CAL-funded, teacher-generated projects take a year for approval and require community involvement.
"Community resources are brought into the school or the students go out into the community for some kind of learning activity," said Bill Miles, Public Education Network's director of policy initiatives.
Sun Yat Sen students, for instance, worked with several arts groups, including the American Globe Theatre, the Shakespeare Society and the Creative Arts Team at New York University. English, social studies and performing arts were integrated to enhance speaking, listening, reading and writing skills.
At an alternative school in Miami, the 500 Role Model Academy, 20 seventh-graders became prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors in a mock trial.
"We went on field trips. We went to the courthouse, we went to a murder trial," said Marilyn Treusch, program coordinator. "We involved the community. We had two assistant state attorneys, a public defender and a personal injury attorney working with our students and teaching them how to try cases."
Innovative projects can win a school more than one CAL grant.
Role Model Academy, on its second project, last year had students create a school supply store that taught them entrepreneurship.
"What is really unusual about this program is that young people have a voice in their own learning," Puriefoy said. "They are engaged; their curiosity is sated. They are deemed not as vessels where something gets poured into them -- they're real participants."
At the Rafael Hernandez Performing Arts School in Newark, N.J., students create original musical films in a production studio that CAL made possible. Forty students this year made a film on local historical figures buried in a cemetery next to their school.
The children learned aspects of filmmaking, including writing an original script and musical score, designing sets and costumes, makeup, acting, promotion and public relations. They also worked closely with the New Jersey Historical Society and the Newark Museum.
CAL awards more than $250,000 a year through funding provided by the J. P. Morgan Chase Foundation. It began in 1990 as a reform effort of middle grades in the New York City public school system, run by New Visions for Public Schools, a PEN affiliate.
This year, 46 teachers in 10 states won grants. Most are one-year grants of $5,000, although grants in New York City provide $15,000 over two years.
While participants are chosen on the basis of grades and teacher recommendations, other students are brought in to assist and watch, said James Manno, who runs the film studio at Rafael Hernandez.
Accolades from the National Television Academy and other groups led to added financial support for Manno's project, including two private investors who gave $5,000 each.
"They love it," Manno said of his students. "They can't wait each year to make a new movie. The fact that we have been awarded so many awards, they keep seeing themselves getting recognition for their work."
Teachers say a heightened enthusiasm for learning is the true measure of the program's success.