Students dismissed as ‘jail kids’ win a grand prize for problem solving, compete against top tier schools

The NET Charter High School: Central City team says they came up with "Love in Action" as a result of their own struggles.

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They weren’t supposed to be there. A New Orleans charter school team competing with the top high schools in the city was one of the winners in a competition sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation.

Their project, titled Love in Action, was one of three grand prize winners in The Aspen Challenge. After initially competing in Aspen, Colorado, back in March, the team will travel back to America’s Canary City to present Love in Action at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is slated for five days, starting today.  

The NET Charter High School: Central City is an alternative campus that has flexible hours and an individualized curriculum that helps young people complete their high school education. The winning team — comprising Minnie Williams, Journey Miner, Jose Guzman, Alexis Allen, and Johnathan Chambers, along with advisers Valerie Bodet and Archana Sharma — came up with the Love in Action plan after being tasked to identify and solve a problem facing their community. 

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The winning team — made up of Minnie Williams, Journey Miner, Jose Guzman, Alexis Allen and Johnathan Chambers, along with advisers Valerie Bodet and Archana Sharma — came up with the Love in Action plan after being tasked to identify and solve a problem facing their community. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

According to the Aspen Institute’s website: “In response to the Born This Way Foundation’s Taylor Parker’s challenge to spread kindness in order to improve the collective mental health of New Orleans, Central City’s team led a network-wide campaign to promote empathy and change the way that students see themselves.

In addition to establishing an ongoing letter-writing campaign between students at their school and Louisiana’s incarcerated, Central City founded a mentoring program for middle school students at their partner middle school and filmed a documentary showcasing the beauty of young people in New Orleans.”

The students say they came up with the Love in Action idea as a result of their own personal struggles. Honduras native Guzman,18, came to the U.S. at 11 years old as an unaccompanied minor walking from his native country through Mexico to Texas. Chambers, 16, says he started acting out after a death in his family. 

“My cousin had been killed, and it changed me,” Chambers told Nola.com. “I thought I’d end up either dead or in jail. I started doing street stuff. I was going through a real bad anger problem because I felt no one could understand, that no one would care.”

Love In Action was conceived as a way to foster healing through kindness, something the teens said they’d found valuable as they contended with their own problems. In Aspen, despite being reportedly branded “jail kids” or “bad kids” by other competitors, the Central City squad showcased their program in a way that resonated with their peers. Nola.com cites the example of a session the group did on creating “worry stones” with smooth rocks and paint that helps alleviate anxiety. 

“We were fluent,” Allen said of the team win.

They — along with the two other grand prize winners from 18 initial New Orleans schools competing — won $500 and will present their project in Aspen.

Though they were once passing through the school, each trying to manage their issues separately, the group is now close. They say their achievement can create lasting change, particularly in the way kids from New Orleans are perceived. 

“Everybody was talking about The NET,” Guzman told Nola.com. “So we thought, ‘We’ve got to show them.'”

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