Obama at Kalamazoo Central High School: How did it win the honor?

Kalamazoo Central High School beat out more than 1,000 applicants to win the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. Obama delivers the school's graduation speech Monday night.

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    President Barack Obama attends the Kalamazoo Central High School graduation at Western Michigan University in Michigan, Monday.
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For Kalamazoo Central High School, President Obama's commencement address Monday is a measure of how far the school has come.

This is an urban school in Michigan, which has the highest unemployment rate in America. At K-Central, there have been big gaps between the enrollment of students in their freshman year and their graduation rates. Not too long ago, crime-related stories seemed to grab as many headlines as those about learning achievements and sports victories.

But in recent years, the academic improvement in Kalamazoo has been notable. For one thing, since 2006, 91 percent of K-Central graduates have gone to college for at least one semester. Key to that achievement has been an innovative program called the Kalamazoo Promise.

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Now, K-Central has beaten out more than 1,000 applicants across the United States to win the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. The prize is having Mr. Obama speak at graduation.

The president himself picked K-Central from six finalists, which included two magnet schools, two charter schools, and a suburban public school.

While senior Kathryn Dugal originally thought that Obama’s presence could hijack graduation, she now sees it as a community event that will become an indelible memory.

A lot of adults “don’t even remember their high school graduation. It was a steppingstone,” says Kathryn, who will study at Michigan State University in East Lansing in the fall. “This does make it special.”

In November 2005, “this little thing called the Kalamazoo Promise” was announced, as one Kalamazoo Public Schools administrator understatedly described it.

The Promise pledges scholarship money to students graduating from KPS for in-state colleges and universities. It’s a gift from anonymous donors.

The fall following the Promise announcement, the class of 2010 entered high school. Unlike their predecessors, they had four years to absorb the idea that hard work and the right classes could aid their passage into college – a place unknown to many families. More than half of the student population is considered low-income.

“For a youngster who lives in a family with economic challenges, job challenges, heat challenges – those who may not get enough to eat at home – [just] telling those kids to work hard, it was hollow,” says Alex Lee, spokesman for KPS. “This group, knowing that tuition and fees were covered by the Promise – our expectations were higher with this group.”

The number of students at K-Central taking Advanced Placement courses are up, with triple-digit increases among minority students, Mr. Lee says. Minority students make up 61 percent of the student population at K-Central.

Another gold star: The 2008-09 academic year was the first time in five years that the school passed the “adequate yearly progress” measurement as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act, which involves students’ performance on standardized tests.

These improvements, and the ability of students to express them in the Race to the Top competition video, took the school into the finalist round.

“We accept any student at K-Central, whether they’re right out of jail, have a low income. It doesn’t matter,” says senior Cara Cunliffe, who worked on the video project. “The other schools in the competition accept minorities, but they don’t accept everyone like K-Central does.”

The student body is diverse, but not divided, says Cara, who plans to study nursing at Western Michigan University Kalamazoo. Her twin sister, Cailey, who plans to study special education at MSU, agrees. She has friends of all hues whose ethnic origins circle the globe.

“There’s no hostility, especially in our senior class,” she says. “We’re tight. We’re happy for each other. I think we have a special group.”

The Promise has made a difference in the ability of kids to get a postsecondary education and “made all the difference” in winning the president’s visit, says mother Marcia Cunliffe. But she also says she feels her two older children received good academic training from the school.

“The school system didn’t let us down,” she says. “I’m really grateful.”

So Monday evening, when almost 300 students cross the stage, receive their diploma, and shake the hand of Obama, they are making history in more than one way: This is one of K-Central’s largest graduating classes, and it is the only one to have an American president present.

“I want the world to know that we are an example that if you keep your goals in mind and work hard, you can make them happen,” says Cailey Cunliffe. “Keep your head up.”

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