Judges Greg McNair and Judy Chiasson are wowed by an exhibit by Arleta students, where visitors are encouraged to cut free caged rains containing messages of peace.
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Judges Greg McNair and Judy Chiasson are wowed by an exhibit by Arleta High, which encouraged visitors to “free” caged paper cranes containing messages of peace.  View additional photos from this event

How do you solve the problems of gender bias and human trafficking? Thanks to the work of eight students from Arleta High School, we are closer to understanding how to answer that question.

The Arleta team was tapped as the winner among nine L.A. Unified high schools participating in the inaugural Challenge Los Angeles, identifying an issue troubling their community and working over the course of seven weeks to devise a solution. The students and their projects were showcased during a finale on Saturday at Reseda High School.

“You are all amazing, and you are already leading us forward,” said School Board member Mónica Ratliff, whose  district includes Reseda. “I hope that today’s activities and the feedback you will hear will help you take your work even further. I hope from here each one of you will go on to change the world.”

View additional photos from this event

Branding themselves Team Prevent, the Arleta students opted to work on a plan to curb human trafficking, a challenge presented at the Jan. 23 kick-off by Holly Priebe-Sotello from the District’s Office of Human Relations, Diversity, and Equity. They conducted data analysis and community surveys, held school-wide assemblies to raise awareness, and partnered with community organizations like Zoe International, a non-profit that helps victims of human trafficking in the U.S. and Thailand.

Mónica Ratliff, Board member representing District 6, addresses the student challengers before presentations are under way.
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Mónica Ratliff, Board member representing District 6, addresses the student challengers before presentations are under way.

The team also raised money by selling Team Prevent shirts – emblazoned with their heart-shaped logo – and collected clothes, shoes, blankets, and other items to donate to victims of human trafficking. They created a “No Traffick Campaign” on social media, using the hashtags #ahsprevent and #ZOEprevent to promote positive self-images and reduce the likelihood that a student would fall victim to trafficking. Their exhibit included a “cage” holding paper cranes inscribed with messages of peace. Visitors were asked to use wire cutters to open the cage and free the birds and accompanying messages of peace as a metaphor for promoting love and freedom.

“This is a very special victory not just for the Arleta High School Mustangs, but for all of the victims of gender bias and human trafficking,” said teacher Harpreet Sidhu, who coached the team.

“The Challenge L.A. competition is a representation of how hungry students are to make a lasting impact on the community. I am extremely proud of how hard our students worked to help ensure that these problems do not continue to plague communities” Sidhu said.

All nine teams made a strong showing at the day’s events, responding to challenges such as getting out the vote, reducing homophobia, combating domestic violence, and promoting fitness, easing traffic congestion by transforming landscapes in their communities.

All of the Challenge L.A. participants have been invited to the April 7 “We Day” at the Los Angeles Forum, which celebrates the efforts of teens to improve the quality of life in their communities.

Students take a well-deserved break after lunch to dance in the quad with their fellow competitors.
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Students take a well-deserved break after lunch to dance in the quad with their fellow competitors.

“We are very proud of all of these students,” said Kathy Gonnella, the administrator for the District’s Beyond the Bell Branch who coordinated Challenge Los Angeles. “We were absolutely blown away by the hard work and commitment demonstrated by these incredible students and their coaches who gave up time and energy to guide them. A special thanks to the school’s administrators who provided an unparalleled level of support.”

Officials from Beyond the Bell are aiming to leverage the success of the first Challenge Los Angeles to expand the program, opening up opportunities for many more students.

“We want this to grow beyond what anyone could have imagined,” Gonnella said. “We already have ideas to sustain the momentum these kids have started and involve them in future challenges, hopefully, as student coaches.”