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Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - June 08, 2015 Neshawn Calloway, chairman of the Chattanooga ACT-SO program, oversees the Monday night meeting while the group makes travel plans for the NAACP's National Academic Olympics in July.
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Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - June 08, 2015 Neshawn Calloway, standing right, chairman of the Chattanooga ACT-SO program, oversees a short quiz at the Monday night meeting on McCallie Avenue. The group gathered to make travel plans for the NAACP's National Academic Olympics in July. Seated from right are Avery Simmons and Alaysha Harden. Visible from left are Denise Ferguson, Jerry Robinson and Timothy Harden.

Eric Cullins made history this year by gaining two gold medals in two separate categories at the local NAACP's ACT-SO competition.

"With my parents helping me to push through, persevere and practice, I've gotten to where I am today," said Cullins, a 2015 Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences graduate who already has earned $10,500 in scholarships.

Cullins won a gold medal in local competition for playing classical violin and another gold in science after he developed a computer software program that composes music.

The CSAS alumni is one of four local students who will compete against hundreds of youth on July 9-12 at the national Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics in Philadelphia.

"It feels good to have your stuff together, " said Cullins, who plans to study computer software development at Tennessee Tech University this fall.

ACT-SO includes 26 categories of competition in the sciences, humanities, business and performing and visual arts. Some 600 students from across the country, including seven from Chattanooga, competed nationally in Las Vegas in 2014.

This year, representatives from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other prestigious universities will be in the audience prepared to offer scholarships to top students when Cullins and his peers make their presentations.

Other students competing from Chattanooga include poet Avery Simmons, saxophone player Jalil Muhammad and vocalist Jerry Robinson.

Alaysha Harden competed in the short story category and picked up a $500 scholarship from Communication VIP to attend the national competition as a youth observer.

"We want youth to be exposed to what excellence looks like," said Vincent Phipps, owner of Communication VIP Training and Coaching.

"And we want them to know what it takes to prepare for whatever it is that they want to do for the rest of their lives, whether it's music or businesses."

Phipps, ACT-SO's former chairman, has been taking local students to the national competition for nine years. He says ACT-SO allows black students to see and achieve success.

"When you are a teenager of color and you see that people who look like you are consistently portrayed as criminals, you have a negative self-portrayal," Phipps said. "It's important for ACT-SO to take a lead role in showing that African-American students are as brilliant and as capable as anyone else."

Robinson, an upcoming senior at Center for Creative Arts, also will compete in Philadelphia in contemporary vocal music.

"It's going to be a good experience, not only for me but especially for black youth to see that we can come together and not be labeled as rowdy. But we can come together and celebrate art," he said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfree press.com or 757-6431.

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