For 12 weeks, Diane D. Feaster would leave work at 6 p.m. for two hours, using her dinner break and city-paid release time to attend an adult education class at Calvert Street and North Avenue.
Last night, again on dinner break from her 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift, Feaster, an office assistant in the city Bureau of Water and Waste Water, joined some 150 others at Martin's Champagne Room on West Patapsco Avenue for ceremonies honoring her as "Outstanding Student of the Year" in the Labor Education Program's Project LEAP.
The 2-year-old literacy workplace program is a joint effort of the AFL-CIO and the Maryland State Department of Education. It provides union members an opportunity to acquire general equivalency diplomas (GEDs) or enhance their English, math or writing skills after being out of school for years.
The free voluntary program also provides computer training. Project LEAP holds 59 classes twice a week, usually in the evenings, in the Baltimore area.
Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who wants to make Baltimore "the city that reads," allows city workers an hour of release time to improve their knowledge. Last night, he presented certificates to students.
Being named student of the year seemed to embarrass Feaster, who described herself as shy, one of 700 students participating in the program.
"I wasn't expecting all this," she said. "I just wanted to brush up on my skills." Feaster began classes in January and finished in May.
The basic math, English, reading and writing courses have enabled Feaster to help her 10-year-old son, Gary, with his homework, and to make quick calculations of percentages during sales when she goes shopping.
"Before, I'd have to go to the register and have them tell me" the price, said Feaster, who graduated from Northwestern High School in 1974.
"I had no idea this would come out of it," she said. Feaster received her certificate and a $50 savings bond for being named outstanding student.
She also will receive a free night on the town in July. That will include a chauffeured limousine and a cruise.
Feaster was chosen outstanding student because of her dedication, hard work and good attendance, said a Project LEAP spokeswoman.
A $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education has funded Project LEAP during its two years of existence, said Debra Brown Felser, the program's director.
The program provides a "comfortable" environment for union members who want to acquire skills that can also boost their careers, Felser said.
"Once you're out of school for 25 years . . . you get a lot rusty," said Marie Daily, 41, an employee of London Fog, maker of outerwear.
Bonnie L. and Larry J. DeLoach said Project LEAP also changed their lives.
The couple received their GEDs last year in the same class. Bonnie DeLoach had dropped out during her junior year in high school to get married and Larry DeLoach was embarrassed because he had to attend "slow classes."
"It's helped me feel better about myself," said Larry DeLoach, 41, a material handler.
Because of the program, said Bonnie DeLoach, 42, she and her husband can go to college if they desire.
Employers also benefit from the program, according to Stanford A. Alliker, president of Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital on Greenspring Avenue.
Alliker said his company wanted to improve workers' communication skills with patients, so it got involved in Project LEAP last fall. If employees do better, then the employer and patients will, too, he said.