When Rita Bagala, 17, and Daniela Deny, 18, took the stage in the Bedford High School auditorium Saturday, nobody knew they would bring the house down.
But the audience of around 200 high school students and teachers from throughout Boston’s suburbs was on its feet, cheering and applauding, after the two Lowell High School seniors delivered a stirring rebuttal to the Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The decision allowed a handful of Southern states to change their election laws without federal approval for the first time in nearly 50 years. The court said federal oversight was no longer necessary because racial discrimination had diminished in recent years. The two teens disagreed.
“Just because times have changed doesn’t mean a problem is completely solved,” said Deny, who is deciding between enrolling in Vassar or Smith College in the fall.
“Everyone thinks problems are solved. I think they evolve,” said Bagala, who plans on attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “Like racism. It doesn’t go away. It takes new forms.”
Later, Bagala explained how she prepared her speech. “You should talk to someone so they know how you feel, not just get the facts,” she said. “I feel very strongly about the issue. I used that fuel to help me write my part of the argument.”
Bagala and Deny typified the predominantly African-American and Latino students who attended Bedford High School’s third annual Tenacity Challenge: They’re smart, they know it, and they’re going places. Cohosted by the Greater Boston Students of Color Achievement Network, a collaborative of urban and suburban school districts, the Challenge is a competition among 31 teams of six students seeking to win college scholarships.
Natick took first place, with six team members receiving $1,000 scholarships apiece. Lowell took second place, winning $500 scholarships. Lexington won third place and $300 scholarships.
The student teams compete in persuasive public speaking (this year, the Supreme Court decision was the assigned topic), delivering dramatic performances based on African-American and Latino literature, and a head-to-head math and science Quiz Bowl. They often prepare for the event months ahead of time. This year, students from 17 communities throughout Massachusetts competed.
“I like the Quiz Bowl. It brings a lot of excitement. I like math,” said Weffly St. Fleurose, 18, a Sharon High School senior from Boston who said attending the Challenge for three years has taught him the value of starting on projects early. “I feel like each year we’re gradually getting better as we prepare more.”
St. Fleurose and many other students participating in the Challenge live in Boston and other urban districts but attend suburban schools under the state’s Metco program to foster integration.
Bedford School Superintendent Jon Sills said the program has been an asset to Bedford.
“It’s beneficial to the kids who come in terms of the character of the education they receive, and it brings benefits to the receiving town by creating a more diverse student population,” Sills said.
But Sills said that, before he organized the Challenge, he noticed that many urban students didn’t have an opportunity to celebrate their intellectual talents with others. At home, they’re often under pressure not to appear nerdy or interested in anything but sports, he said.
“The primary goal [is] to create a culture within our schools for students of color that fosters intellectual risk- taking and perseverance and builds academic capacity,’’ said Sills.
The idea caught on. Sixty-six students participated in the first Challenge, Sills said. Now, more schools are sending more teams each year. Sills said teachers have noticed students displaying increased confidence and participating more in class after they take part in the Challenge, while students report higher motivation and academic performance. Sills is working with Boston College students to evaluate the program to see if it boosts student achievement in concrete ways.
“The kids have been eloquent about how transformative this has been in terms of confidence, college focus, and being introduced to high-level academic tasks,’’ Sills said. “Over time, we expect to see some hard data as well.’’
DeShaun Smith, a 17-year-old Lincoln-Sudbury High School senior from Boston, said he didn’t express his excitement about academics until his teammates — they call themselves Los Gengas — asked him to join them. “As a student, it lets you know that there are people who think you have potential,” he said. “After I was asked to join, I tried harder in physics.”
La Toya Rivers, who oversees around 180 out-of-town students as director of Metco in the Weston public schools, was sitting in an auditorium seat, arms crossed and smiling as students delivered their impassioned remarks on the Supreme Court decision. She’s seen this kind of enthusiasm among students before. Usually, however, it’s reserved for Friday nights, she said.
“You get the same energy with this event for academics that you would get at any football game,” said Rivers. “The kids here are not just strong academically, but proud to show it.”