Kalamazoo high school grads win celebrity speaker: President Obama

Kalamazoo Central High School beat out more than 1,000 schools to win the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge.

By , Staff writer

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    Kalamazoo, Mich., officials and students react as they get confirmation that Kalamazoo Central High School won the commencement challenge to have President Obama speak at their high school graduation June 10.
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On June 10, seniors at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan will get a rare honor for a high school: a sitting president as their commencement speaker.

President Obama announced his intent to address the students there on Tuesday, choosing Kalamazoo as the winner of more than 1,000 applicants to the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge.

Last week, the public voted on the six schools chosen as finalists in the challenge – all selected based on their commitment to academic excellence and their success in graduating students prepared for college or a career. The public vote narrowed the finalists down to three schools: Kalamazoo, Clark Montessori Junior High and High School in Cincinnati, and the Denver School of Science and Technology.

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Of those three, Kalamazoo was the only traditional public high school of the three – an urban school that serves an underprivileged population and has made big strides in changing its culture and improving the academic performance of its students.

The Kalamazoo Promise

The changes have been largely due to the Kalamazoo Promise – a program founded by anonymous donors that guarantees four years of college tuition to any student who graduates and is accepted to a state college or university.

“The results thus far show that it’s possible to have systemic change in high schools,’ says Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who has been studying the effect of the Kalamazoo Promise.

In some ways, Kalamazoo has less impressive statistics than the other finalists.

At the Denver School of Science and Technology, a charter school, 100 percent of its first three graduating classes have been accepted to four-year colleges, and students take advanced math and five science courses in high school. At Clark Montessori, a public magnet program, the school also boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate for its 2010 class, and students perform 200 hours of community service and must complete a 30- to 40-page research paper as a senior project.

Kalamazoo – with 1,700 students, about four times the size of the other two finalists – has an 80 percent graduation rate, and last year made its adequate yearly progress goals for all student groups for the first time. And since the Kalamazoo Promise began in 1995, 91 percent of the school’s graduates have gone on to college.

A larger school with bigger challenges

But as a large traditional school, Kalamazoo also faces bigger challenges than other finalists, which students opt into and which are likely to attract students willing to meet their stringent requirements, says Professor Miron.

Kalamazoo Central “is a school that takes all kids, including many kids who don’t want to be in school,” says Miron. “There are exceptional charter schools out there, but there are exceptional traditional public schools out there too. What’s important about this selection is that if we’re going to lift our urban schools in America, charter schools aren’t the model, given the numbers they’re serving and given their record so far.”

Several other districts, he notes, are now implementing “promise” models similar to Kalamazoo’s.

On Tuesday, while announcing the winner during a speech to the Business Council, Obama emphasized the importance of education and restated his goal that the US “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.”

The administration has announced that the five other finalists – including Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas; Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, Calif; and MAST Academy in Miami, Fla. – will have cabinet members as their commencement speakers.

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