Students do the "dab" to relieve some stress in between presentations to the judges.

Students do the "dab" to relieve some stress in between presentations to the judges.

Teens recognized for their innovative solutions to systemic challenges

March 29, 2017 Philadelphia, PA — Three groups of inspiring students from Northeast High School, Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter High School, and George Washington High School claimed the top prizes during the Aspen Challenge competition in Philadelphia on March 29 at Ballroom at the Ben. Judges awarded the winning teams an all-expenses-paid opportunity to attend and present at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival, an acclaimed gathering of global leaders, policymakers and entrepreneurs taking place in Colorado in June.  

Launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation, and implemented in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, this is the citywide competition’s first year in Philadelphia. It began in February with an all-day forum where leaders, who are pioneering change to pressing world issues, presented the teams with unique challenges. Teams then had eight weeks to design a solution to a challenge topic of their choice. 

George Washington High School’s team PhitPhilly created weekly classes for elementary school students, teaching them how to choose healthy snacks and play active games for fun. They partnered with recreation centers to promote their ‘food, fitness, and fun” health initiative, ultimately resulting in their constituents losing weight and reporting a higher degree of happiness. They built a strong audience across media channels and offered tips for healthy living on their website phitphilly.org.

Northeast High School’s team Meraki (Greek for “with passion and love”) started out as “fruit activists,” collecting unwanted fruit from their school and redistributing to those in need. They grew to partner with Teen Elect, an organization of teen mothers and fathers in their school, to teach them how to make food with limited ingredients (like smoothies) and veterans organizations in need of creative, nutritious food alternatives. They’re currently working with the School Reform Commission of Philadelphia to enact policy to reduce food waste district-wide.

Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School’s team Sankofa Feeds worked to decrease food waste and eradicate hunger in their community of Kensington. They recovered food from local businesses and schools to feed over 100 people suffering from hunger, poverty, and drug addiction. They initiated the process to be a registered nonprofit organization with the goal of opening chapters across the city and enable their peers to earn service credits through their time commitment to the mission.

“Service learning can really be such a great way for students to utilize their own talents and strengths in a really natural and organic way to come up with outstanding solutions to problems that sometimes even adults can’t solve.” said Diane Finesmith, a teacher from Kensington Health Sciences Academy.

“My experience with The Aspen Challenge has changed me a lot. Aspen has helped me better control my temper and emotions, because despite all the negativity [around us], we tried to make things better for the world. It made me a young man instead of a little kid,” Emmanuel Laboy, a student of One Bright Ray Community High School reflected.“This experience was a learning experience in so many different ways. In terms of teamwork, relationships, community outreach, and just beyond basic learning, we [students and teachers] grew as a group throughout this process,” said Kathleen Martin, a teacher at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter High School.

Judges presented additional awards to teams from The U School (Impact Award), John Bartram High School (Best Exhibit), and First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter High School (Team Spirit). In addition, the People’s Choice Award, selected by Aspen Challenge students, the Impact Award went to George Washington High School.

"Aspen Challenge is truly an opportunity for our youth to encourage and inspire each other, and the adults around them, to solve critical issues facing the world. Whether teams have chosen to eliminate youth violence or encourage healthy living habits, this generation is wonderfully positioned to adapt as it encounters both progress and barriers,” noted Dr. William R. Hite, superintendent of The School District of Philadelphia.

Currently in its fifth year, the Aspen Challenge has partnered with Los Angeles Unified School District, Denver Public Schools, DC Public Schools, DC Public Charter School Board, Chicago Public Schools, and now the School District of Philadelphia. The program aims to establish additional partnerships with public school districts in cities across the country in the years to come.