The official sign-up period for the annual ACT-SO program, sponsored by the West Side NAACP, began on Saturday, Dec.10, at Dunbar High School, located at 3000 S. King Drive.

The program allows African-American high school students to receive year-long mentoring and coaching from community volunteers and business leaders. These mentors will coach the students on improving their academic and artistic potential, and prepare them for displaying their skills in local and national competitions.

The ACT-SO program, which stands for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics was founded in 1978, by the late author and journalist Vernon Jarrett. Jarrett championed the cause of encouraging black youth to demonstrate the level of expertise and dedication generally reserved for athletics.

“We believe that through the ACT-SO program, the national scholastic scores of black youths can be eventually raised to match, or even surpass, the achievement levels of all other groups,” said Steven Page, chairperson of the West Side ACT-SO program. “We urge all NAACP branches to reach out and recruit volunteers to serve as instructors, coaches, mentors and role models for black youth in all of the categories presented in the guidelines.”

The primary academic areas of study for the student participants include architecture, biology, computer science, music instrumental/classical, sculpture, and poetry. Students will have a choice to study the area they feel best suits their individual interests, and they will be matched up with the instructor educated in their chosen area of study.

Although one of the program’s goals is to prepare the youths for the competitions, another is to highlight the results produced by the hard work put forth by both student and mentor.

“The competition and awards are always secondary,” said Cheryl Washington, member of the NAACP West Side branch. “However, when they compete in the local competitions and take home a bronze, silver or gold metal and have the opportunity to advance to the national competition, they see the fruits of their labors and they gain a greater appreciation for their academic gifts.”

The primary goal of the ACT-SO program is the mobilization of the adult community for the promotion of classroom and after-school excellence among black students. As has been the case for the last several years, blacks are among the ethnic groups with the highest dropout rates and lowest scholastic scores. This is particularly true among black males.

The ACT-SO program believes that by encouraging more in the community to take on a mentoring role, they can motivate black youth to become more passionate about the arts and sciences.

ACT-SO conducts annual academic competitions for students in grades 9-12 in NAACP branches throughout the country. Currently, they hold local tournaments in several aforementioned categories. The top local winners from each category then compete with the winners from other cities at the national ACT-SO finals during the NAACP convention, which will take place next July in Washington D.C. This year’s local competition will take place at Malcolm X College in March.

At last year’s competition a student from Westinghouse Career Academy took home a gold medal for architecture and then won bronze at the national competition.

Each winner at the national tournament receives a bronze, silver or gold medal and $500 (bronze) $750 (silver) or $1,000 (gold) monetary scholarship to be matched by McDonald’s.

Those interested in becoming a mentor or receiving more information about the programcan contact the Chicago Westside NAACP at 773/261-5890.