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High school math whizzes receive keys to the city of New Orleans

The honor comes for seniors Ne’Kiya Jackson and Calcea Johnson after they made international headlines in recent months with a new math proof.

Ne’Kiya Jackson, left, and Calcea Johnson hold their keys to the city of New Orleans with Mayor LaToya Cantrell on April 27. (Cantrell/Twitter)

As their mathematics expertise continues to make headlines around the world, two high school seniors from St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans were granted keys to the city by Mayor LaToya Cantrell last month.

The ceremony took place on April 27 with Ne’Kiya Jackson and Calcea Johnson. their families, and educators from the 156-year-old school founded by Venerable Henriette DeLille’s order of Black Catholic nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Family.

“You are role models for our youth and particularly young women! I want to thank you for challenging yourselves and embracing the opportunity to learn something new and grow,” Cantrell said in an announcement on social media.

“Stay committed, excel at your work, & take advantage of the opportunities being presented before you!”

Earlier this year, the two teenagers presented a new proof of the Pythagorean theorem at an academic conference in Atlanta, which quickly rocketed them to international attention for what their school called “unprecedented research.”

Jackson and Johnson were interviewed on ABC News’ national broadcast in late March, and have been encouraged by the American Mathematical Society to submit their work to a peer-reviewed journal.

“This proof does seem to be a big deal because it uses trigonometry without being circular,” said Dr. Álvaro Lozano-Robledo, a professor at the University of Connecticut whose TikTok video celebrating the girls’ research went viral with more than 234,000 views.

Johnson, who plans to study environmental engineering in college, serves as the chair of the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, which advises Cantrell on youth issues in New Orleans. Jackson plans to study pharmacy or anesthesiology.

Johnson and Jackson were also featured in St. Mary’s Academy’s recent Debutante Ball, wherein the high school’s seniors are presented to society in a traditional ceremony.

Like debutante balls, the tradition of receiving keys to a city dates back centuries, part of a tradition honoring visitors to or residents of a city who have achieved notable feats. The key symbolizes the freedom of its holder to enter and leave the city at will, with the blessing of the city’s leadership and residents.

The honor in New Orleans has previously been bestowed on figures such as Beyoncé, her husband Jay-Z and sister Solange, Ava DuVernay, Master P, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong.

“Ne’Kiya Jackson and Calcea Johnson have reached an unprecedented level of academic achievement in the City of New Orleans,” Cantrell said, “especially as high school students!”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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