“We don’t want to be cocky or anything,” Dayjane Rhone, a 10th grader at Mastery Charter School, Simon Gratz Campus says, trying to cover a coy smile. “But I think we got this in the bag.”
Rhone, alongside her team member, were just a couple of the nearly 170 high school students packed in the Mitchell Auditorium at Drexel University on Wednesday pulsating with the kind of energy only a group of hyper-confident, overly-nervous 16-year-olds could muster. That and the steady beat of Rockstar by Post Malone and 21 Savage playing in the background, set the scene for the final showcase of the Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia.
When it was all over, 17 teams had made their pitch to be the city’s top problem-solvers and one accomplished group took home the crown—literally.
In partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation and the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Challenge provides the platform and resources for high school students to tackle the biggest issues facing society today—a task that, for the average adult, might sound grueling and nearly impossible. But for the 17 high schools represented, it was an opportunity to test their own mental capacity, learn how to work in a team, up their leadership skills, and develop some powerful solutions along the way.
Over the past eight weeks, students worked hard brainstorming, developing, and eventually implementing a solution to one of the five challenges pitched to them back in February, ranging from climate change to the school-to-prison pipeline. On Wednesday, all of their hard work culminated on stage in front of a panel of seven prominent judges including Saxbys founder and CEO Nick Bayer; president and CEO of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia Donna Frisby-Greenwood; M. Night Shyamalan Foundation executive director Danielle Wolfe; and SeventySix Capital managing partner Wayne Kimmel.
To kick off the day full of presentations, speakers, and sing along Rihanna breaks, Greg Corbin, spoken word poet, speaker and educator, shared a piece of wisdom to motivate the high school crowd: “You are the believers; you see the solutions when everyone else sees the problem.”
Just from watching the short five-minute presentations, it was clear that many groups came to win and the eight weeks of meetings, bickering, and work paid off. Lakenau High School, for example, took the stage first with their project “Carbon Busters,” a program incorporating LED lights into their school in order to reduce the energy consumption while encouraging the community as a whole to reduce its carbon footprint. Over the course of just a couple months, the team at Lakenau reduced CO2 emissions in their school by 30 percent.
“In the beginning I wasn’t confident, and I thought ‘Why are we doing this?’,” Dana Shaw says of Lakenau High School. “But to see our results and see how we reduced our footprint, it felt good that we could make a change.”
Other teams showed off their accomplishments via music, detailed graphs and charts, or actual products. Slam Dunk Junk, a program created by One Bright Ray Community High School, used basketball themed trash cans to encourage garbage disposal and spark the conversation around climate change.
“We decided we go big or we go home,” says Jasaan Golden, a participant on the winning Bartram team. “And we didn’t want to go home, so we chose something we thought no one else would do.”
At the end of the day every school brought their best, but only one walked away with the crown, which they fittingly were already wearing when they got on stage to present.
Give Us Our Crowns is a program designed by the eight-student team from John Bartram High School with the goal to educate the southwest Philadelphia community about entry points to the school-to-prison pipeline and its impact by creating a thousand-origami crane project and displaying them across the community.
“We decided we go big or we go home,” says Jasaan Golden, a participant on the Bartram team. “And we didn’t want to go home, so we chose something we thought no one else would do.”
The team took to the stage in matching orange prison jumpsuits, gold sparkling crowns, and a presence that demanded the attention of the audience. Coronation over incarceration was the tagline for the team working to raise awareness and promote restorative justice over incarceration. Forty percent of all U.S. children expelled from schools each year are black and 70 percent of students involved in “in-school” arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino, according to a fact sheet from the Give Us Our Crowns website.
The original challenge given by Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, asked students to use art to raise awareness about the school-to-prison pipeline in their communities and promote restorative justice and education over incarceration.
Now the team from John Bartram High School will head to the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado this June, where they will spend a week attending seminars, participating in activities, meeting entrepreneurs and leaders from across the country, and sharing their project with three other teams from Aspen Challenge in Dallas.
“Now we’re performing in front of everybody, in front of people from all over, in front of corporations and businessmen and businesswomen,” says Jasaan. “And origami cranes was a start, but that’s not the only thing we want to do. We have more plans for the schools and local businesses to get everyone else involved.”
As the team gets closer to the June festival date, they’ll be focusing on getting prepared and will receive help from the Aspen Challenge team twice before they make their way to Colorado. But besides practicing their presentation, rehearsing lines, and perfecting their stage presence the team has one thing to say to those they’ll meet at the Aspen Ideas Festival: “Give us our crowns.”
Here are the other teams that came out as winners on competition day:
1st place, team from John Bartram High School – Team name: “Give Us Our Crowns”
2nd place, team from George Washington High School – Team name: “PhilaMundo”
3rd place, team from Northeast High School – Team name: “Alpas”
Other honors and awards:
- String Theory Charter School won for Best Exhibit
- Lankenau High School won The Impact Award