They left the city two weeks ago as 15 individuals determined to win a prize. They returned a team, sharing the glory of three awards and planning to share with others the experience of competing in a national "Olympics of the Mind."

The high school students representing the D.C. Chapter of the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) -- a program started just five months ago -- competed with 300 other youths from 80 cities in an academic and cultural competition sponsored by the NAACP at its national convention in Denver.

The categories were as diverse as architecture, electronics, music, dance and playwriting.More than $50,000 in prize money and simulated gold, silver and bronze medals were presented to the winners.

Local winners were Robert Bumbary of Gonzaga High School, second prize for electronics ($750); Anthony Reddix of Dunbar High School, third prize for poetry ($500); and Rhonda Washington of Ballou High School, third prize for chemistry ($500).

"Logically, we weren't supposed to succeed so quickly," said Sheila High King, co-chairwoman of the group. "But the need is here. We're about forging new values and we're here to stay with bigger and better projects down the road."

D.C. ACT-SO was begun to encourage local youths to participate in the arts and sciences. It was a success from the very beginning: ACT-SO was overwhelmed with student entries when it announced its first area competition in May, the preliminary to the Denver competition.

This year's participants have decided to help others become academic winners. Ricardo Brown, who competed in the energy category in denver, said, "This will continue. We are now a family and we will stay together." Brown said participants agreed among themselves to sponsor symposia in their specialties and teach others the fine points of academic competition, or tutor students who need assistance with their schoolwork.

"This fits into our program perfectly," said King. "The whole idea was to make ACT-SO a year-round, community-based program that helped our young people develop themselves. This Denver trip was successful beyond our expectations because now the students are determined to help each other."

The prize winners and the other ACT-SO participants were welcomed back to the city last Friday by relatives, friends and an official delegation headed by city Councilwoman Hilda Mason and former acting school superintendent James Guines.

Mason presented the winners with her "Hilda Awards" -- certificates of recognition for demonstrating "discipline and talent."

The students talked about their impressions on their trip, the competition and the experience of living together. Said Reddix, "I will cherish this experience for the rest of my life."

Alake Abubaker, a first-prize winner in the local dramatics competition, told of the debates and discussions that took place during the 2 1/2-day bus trip to Denver. Led by ACT-SO organizer Lawrence Guyot and King, the students debated the merits of the up-for-renewal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the consequences of the drastically slashed budget of the Neighborhood Legal Services project.

"When we left town," said Abubaker, "I didn't know any of the other students, but now, because of our experience, I've got a busload of extra brothers and sisters."

The neophyte group was not without its problems; the trip was made by a hairbreadth. According to Guyot, one week before departure the group had only enough money "to charter half a bus." Scores of telephone calls, reams of stationery and dozens of personal appeals finally raised the amount needed to cover expenses on the two-week trip.

Mason contributed $1,000 and an additional $1,600 to be used for "emergency expenses;" Mayor Marion Barry gave $1,000; the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church gave $400; the local NAACP donated $3,000; and The Washington Post contributed $3,000. The National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees advanced $6,000 to charter the bus and gave $400 toward expenses.