Local at-risk teens take on national Summer Challenge

One week away from school and parents wasn’t exactly what Donti’ell Ricard thought it would be.

Chosen as one of seven students to represent the Baton Rouge AMIkids alternative school at a nationwide contest in South Carolina, the 15-year-old Ricard wasn’t expecting hard work.

“We had lots of supervision,” he said. “We couldn’t go nowhere. We couldn’t holler at no chicks.”

Instead, during the week-long Summer Challenge, Ricard learned a few lessons about himself and his peers. They practiced first aid, tested their brains and raced with their bodies. It was sunup to sundown work.

“We had a lot of fun, though,” he added.

For 15 years, AMIkids in Baton Rouge have attended the Summer Challenge, where top students compete against similar programs from across the country.

A small school in north Baton Rouge, AMIkids educates students who have a high risk of dropping out. It contracts with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to act as an alternative school, and the majority of its 70 students are referred from there, said Executive Director Tommie Dyer Jr.

“This is the last step,” Dyer said. “The last chance to get their behavior in order.”

Founded in 1969 in Florida as Associated Marine Institutes, the program once helped juvenile offenders escape peer pressure by working on boats.

More than just a reward, Summer Challenge is key to AMIkids, Dyer said.

“We use that to set the pace of the school,” he said. “We let everybody know what’s at stake. We let them know we’re going to take the top seven or eight kids to the challenge program.”

The seven chosen this year range in age from 13 to 18.

“It gives them a chance to get out of Baton Rouge and Louisiana,” said Victor Pierson, a coach and science teacher with AMIkids. “A lot of these kids don’t get the chance to leave the city, let alone the state.”

Hosted by South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Caroline, the Challenge also exposed the students to a college campus, a first for most.

“They have a tendency to ask questions about college,” Pierson said, “Just to get them in that mind set.”

On their first day of competition, the Baton Rouge students were anything but a team, Pierson said. Competing against residential schools, where the students live together, they lagged in the first competition where they learned first aid and raced against other teams to wrap a simulated broken arm.

Also, Baton Rouge had a bad reputation among the other Challenge teams, said Tyshawn Howard, 13.

“They thought we were just trouble,” Howard said. “They know us from all these rappers and stuff and how they talk about it (Baton Rouge) in their songs.”

By the second day, the team decided to get serious and compete. They became “an elite unit,” Dyer said.

“We came together and joined like one, like we were one happy family,” Howard said.

Falling behind in a volleyball tournament, one of the older students took up the challenge to lead.

“I spoke ’em up, like, ‘We can do it,’” said Terrell Brady, who at 18 is the “elder statesman” of the group, according to Dyer. “We talked them up. If we missed the ball or had a downfall, we’d say, ‘Just make it up next time.’”

The team left South Carolina with a handful of medals and a third-place finish overall.

Some of the students will return to AMIkids for the fall semester. After three years at AMI, Brady is looking forward to graduating next year, but he is grateful for the program.

“I was in the streets bad,” he said. “AMI got me out of the streets and got me doing more positive stuff than what I was doing when I came.”

Lenny Morgan, 15, plans to leave AMIkids so he can play high school football, but he is thankful for lessons he learned at AMIkids and at the two Summer Challenges he attended.

“Whoever comes to AMI, they’re kind of lucky in a sense,” he said. “It’s a great program. They are lucky because some of the staff members are just incredible with just teaching and speaking real-life terms and making children understand.”