Caroline Chavasse stood before a room of fidgeting young bodies and wandering eyes and made a tearful plea for her livelihood.

The fate of the 51-year-old rested with this group of 40 youngsters who, with a check of a "yes" or "no" box, would decide whether she would be able to pay her mortgage for the next year.

"I really do want to come back," Chavasse, a mother of two, told the students of the Arts & Ideas Sudbury School. "This is the best job I've ever had. I love being with you and seeing you grow."

She said she was motivated, like them, by the understanding that she had more to learn, more to achieve in her job as a co-founder of the Mount Washington school.

"What have you set out to accomplish that you might not have this year?" she asked. "The answers to those questions are your education, and mine."

Such is the essence of the Arts & Ideas Sudbury School, where children ages 5 to 18 take their education into their own hands.

From how their days are structured to the way the school is governed, students mold their education to their own interests, which can include playing video games all day or teaching themselves photography. They are supervised by staff whom they vote in every year, and follow a rule book they created themselves.

"It is a school, but the curriculum is democracy and the goals are developing essential life skills," Chavasse said. "It's a place for learning, a place where the gifts and strengths of childhood are not squashed and squandered, but cherished and honored."

The Northwest Baltimore school, known as AI Sudbury, is hosting a summer camp this month, where children design their own summer experience, much as they do the rest of the year.

The school's philosophy is rooted in a model that has spurred an international network of Sudbury schools that follow principles of educational freedom. The first Sudbury school was founded in 1968 in Framingham, Mass. In Baltimore's school, one of two in Maryland, that means everyone is equal, everyone has a voice, and everyone has a vote.

In many ways, the nontraditional private school has all of the ingredients of reform that public schools are struggling to grasp: student engagement, individualized education, real-world application, and preparation for college and career.

But there are no schedules, classes, curricula, lesson plans, tests or teachers — only the belief that children, if given the chance, are intrinsically motivated and responsible enough to find their way in the world.

Students learn not from behind desks, but on computers, in front of televisions, doing chores, practicing music, making art, playing in the garden, putting on performances, or venturing off campus in groups into Mount Washington village.

Real-world interactions and exercises are not identified as "literacy" and "math," but students are grounded in situations where they are employing skills of both subjects.

They learn math not from formulas and work sheets, but rather fundraising, on-campus jobs and trips to the neighborhood Whole Foods. Reading and writing are practiced through the responsibilities of being an active member of the school's society, the staff say.

"There are going to be gaps, but the same can be said for traditional school," Chavasse said. "The fact of the matter is that they are learning every day."

To understand AI Sudbury one must observe the school community engaged in its democratic process.

This ethos has empowered students to pass budgets, create new rules, expel a student and even vote out a key staff member.

Twice a week, students meet as a school community to vote on school business. On a recent day, that included debating whether to institute a new policy proposed by a staff member that required all food to be labeled with names and contents.

"Plastic bags are hard to label; Sharpies rub away on Ziploc bags," said 9-year-old Leila Pearsall. "Besides, I'm just too lazy to do that, and my mom won't want to either."