The TSU Allstars of Teens Step Up Inc. practice for their dance performance at the ACT-SO Competition in Newark, New Jersey. 4/11/2015 (Robert Paniconi | NJ Advance Media)
Tariq Harris was in no shape to do much of anything, schoolwise, after his grandmother died in January.
Not his artwork, not even his love for animated film projects. The 18-year-old student at Arts High School in Newark even bombed two midterm exams.
"The grief was holding me back," he says.
Art teacher Kennis Fairfax encouraged Harris to join an NAACP enrichment program that he thought could help the young man tap back into his talent, as well as cope with his loss.
ACT-SO -- the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics - gives students like Harris the motivation to succeed and an opportunity to showcase their gifts in the arts, humanities, sciences and business.
The name maybe long, but what it has done for the past 26 years for African-American high school students across the state is worth every syllable.
"I like being around people who are gifted," says Alexis Green, a 19-year-old vocalist from Irvington. "I like the energy. We're youth and we're actually doing something positive."
The exposure is huge. The relationships the students build are lasting. The excellence they pursue is honed in local chapters, for which students meet weekly and practice with volunteer mentors on their discipline of study.
ACT-SO is known as the Olympics of the mind, and is true to its mission. The organization had Central High School in Newark buzzing with creativity and intellect on Saturday, as some 170 students competed for a chance to advance to its national competition in Philadelphia.
Kayla Childs, a senior at New Brunswick Highschool, plays an original composition at the ACT-SO Competition in Newark, New Jersey. 4/11/2015 (Robert Paniconi | NJ Advance Media)
In the stairwell leading toward the lower level of the building, you could hear the strains of a violin being played by Quatir Coleman, of Camden. The 15-year-old was practicing Bach Sonata No. 2 in A minor: Allegro.
On the landing above him, another member of his chapter, Naima Hazzard, was holding her cell phone close to ear, singing "Skinny" by Birdy. Later in the day, the 16-year-old singer performed a classical piece -- "Nina" by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
All over the building, there was something going on to stimulate the senses. On the second floor, there were sculptures of found objects, papier mache and clay; paintings using oil, water colors and acrylic; drawings made with colored pencils, pencil and charcoal.
Different genres of dance -- from ballet to modern - were being performed in the auditorium. In classrooms, there was poetry, short story and playwriting. There also were presentations in photography, filmmaking, architecture, the sciences and mathematics.
Kevin Carolina, of Piscataway High School, was waiting in the hallway, pacing, studying his mathematical material: "Racial Profiling in African-American Men: A Statistical Study."
"One of the main things I like about this program is being able to develop your craft more and to be able to encounter different people, different professionals and to develop stronger relationships," the 15-year-old says, "and to also be surrounded by young African-American individuals who have the same goals in life as me, which is to be successful.''
He was in good company, too.
Megan Hill-Glover, of Bridgewater-Raritan High School, and Camila Morocho, of Science Park High School in Newark, had heady topics on their plates.
First, research into the roles of the lipids in the pathogenesis of accelerated atherosclerosis in HIV-infected individuals.
This went straight over my head until Morocho, 18, explained that her experiment proves that atherosclerosis, which is the narrowing of arteries over time because of plaque, happens much quicker in people with HIV.
Thanks, young lady.
Then Hill-Glover, 17, walked me down her scientific aisle with this number: The differing bacterial growth colonies between organic and nonorganic poultry meat.
She broke it down this way, telling me that her experiment proves there is larger bacterial growth on organic poultry because farmers use chicken feed that is lacking in pesticides and herbicides. But that's not a problem, she says, because the bacteria goes away when the meat is cooked. The problem, she says, is the nonorganic meat. It has antibacterial strains that can affect how antibiotics work in our bodies.
(L to R) Shyann Felix, Siarra Grace, Mariam Cannon, and Mikayla James do vocal exercises in the halls before performing at the ACT-SO Competition in Newark, New Jersey. 4/11/2015 (Robert Paniconi | NJ Advance Media)
The level of concentration and commitment to their interests is amazing. And the same holds true for the volunteers who come year after year to judge and revel in this talent.
Read more of this story on NJ.com here.