She also felt that in the relationship with her sons' father — their divorce was finalized this year — she was one step behind because he was college-educated and she wasn't.

"I realized that while I wasn't a teenage mom, I was an uneducated mom," Edwards said. "I wanted to get out of the cycle in my family, where women were leaders and providers of the family but not college-educated. And I wanted my boys to emerge as providers and leaders in their own families. So I had to do something different with my life to make that happen."

She earned her bachelor's degree in social work from Georgia State University in 1998, at age 27.

This fall, her son Nicholas will begin his senior year at Morgan State University, while her son Nevan will begin his freshman year at Polytechnic Institute.

Edwards' introduction to the challenges facing youths came as she worked in the Fulton County Juvenile Court in Georgia, where she saw young black men confined, restricted, limited.

"It felt like slavery," she says. "And I noticed that for every kid that's coming through this court system, the one thing that kept coming up with all of them was disengagement in public education. And it was tearing these families apart."

Edwards began searching for a program that could allow her to do social work but also sharpen her writing, speaking and analytical skills. She enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore for graduate programs in social work and law.

Arriving in Baltimore in 1998, she was "devastated" by the poverty she saw. In Meridian, she had never seen someone asking for money on the street or high on drugs in public.

"I was poor, but I had never lived the way the kids in this city lived it," she says. "These children know it, live it and are traumatized in a way that I had not experienced. That freaked me out, gave me purpose."

While in school, Edwards worked with Empower Baltimore Management Corp., a nonprofit that assists neighborhoods with at-risk populations. She served as special assistant to the organization's then-CEO, Diane Bell McKoy, for a year and as chief operating officer from 2001 to 2003.

Bell-McKoy, now the CEO of Associated Black Charities, remembers a compassionate and committed young person. But she quickly saw how education was Edwards' calling.

"She came to me with lots of energy, lots of passion, wanting to make a difference," Bell-McKoy says. "She comes with that kind of energy around wanting something different for families and children."

Edwards joined a group that applied to open a school in 2003 and became founding principal of Baltimore Freedom Academy in Southeast Baltimore.

Under her leadership, the public charter school made progress and suffered setbacks. Three months into its first year, seven students had left, and staff members began to quit. Administrators had to institute a points-and-rewards system to encourage good behavior in a school that sought a loosely structured environment predicated on accountability.

Ashley Wilder, part of the school's first graduating class in 2007, recalls a strong leader whose tough love helped her graduate fourth in her class.

She called Edwards the day before she was supposed to leave for a summer engineering program at the University of Pittsburgh to say she was not going.

"She said, 'Oh, yes, you are,'" recalls Wilder, a recent Towson graduate. "If I didn't go there, I really don't know where I would be now. She didn't pick on you, but made sure you knew you weren't going to be put on a pedestal just because you were a student. You would be held accountable, you would reach your full potential."

Ten years after opening the school, Edwards helped make the recommendation this year to close it for poor academic performance. She says the decision was one of "the hardest things I ever had to do, but the right thing to do for kids."

She says she left in 2007 at odds with the charter school's board.

"I'd gone from a place where I could do what I thought I needed to do for kids to a place where that autonomy was becoming really, really narrow," she says. "That's an example of adults getting in the way."