some text
Jessica Tolbert, a senior at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, works on a charcoal sketch in her Brainerd home. She is one of seven area students heading to Las Vegas to compete in the NAACP's ACT-SO program, similar to an academic olympics.

Local ACT-SO award winners attending the national competition are:

Alaysha Harden, gold medalist, original essay

Alexus Russell, gold medalist, dance

Chandler Custer, gold medalist, instrumental classical and instrumental contemporary

Jessica Tolbert, gold medalist, drawing and painting

Maya Thirkill, gold medalist, oratory

Myrissa Williams, bronze medalist, poetry

Orlando House, gold medalist, poetry

On Chattanooga's Tunnel Boulevard, where gunfire is common and crime abounds, lives an award-winning young artist.

"Every now and then you hear guns and sirens," says 17-year-old Jessica Tolbert. "I keep focusing on my future."

Jessica is one of seven Chattanooga students who traveled to Las Vegas this week to compete against more than 600 other teens in the NAACP's national academic Olympics, called ACT-SO.

This is the first year Chattanooga has taken this many students to the national competition.

Top winners get up to $5,000 and a laptop or tablet computer. Just as important as winning is the exposure teens get from participating, said local ACT-SO Chairman Vincent Phipps, who is accompanying the students to the competition.

The students left Thursday to fly more than 1,670 miles to Las Vegas for competition on Saturday.

The categories include humanities, business, visual arts, performing arts and sciences/STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Jessica knows firsthand about the benefits gained from exposure. She won top art student in the country at the 2013 ACT-SO competition. In addition to getting $2,000 for first place, several people offered her thousands to purchase her winning piece. She didn't sell it there because she had promised it to the local Craniofacial Foundation.

Phipps said actors Tatyana Ali and Blair Underwood; first lady Michelle Obama; singer Alicia Keys, rapper Kanye West and surgeon Dr. Ben Carson are among the influential people who have attended the ACT-SO competition in the past seven years.

Young black adults need to see that there are other intelligent, talented, focused young people and that it is cool to be smart and care about your future, Phipps said.

ACT-SO -- an acronym for Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics -- allows them to see a world where hundreds of black students excel in school and in their talent.

Other local students competing are Alaysha Hardin, Alexus Russell, Chandler Custer, Maya Thirkill, Myrissa Williams and Orlando House.

Tolbert will showcase a three-dimensional interactive wall hanging of author Zora Neal Hurston.

Two-time local gold medalist Custer will perform Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto and Scott Joplin's "Elite Syncopation."

Thirkill, who wants to be a civil rights attorney, will perform an original essay in oratory competition.

She thought the students at the national ACT-SO competition would be nerdy, she said. She called them inspirational after meeting them at a previous competition.

"They're people just like me," said Maya. "Attractive, dress cute, but passionate about what they do and they want to move forward in life."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or call 423-757-6431.