Obama gives nod to Memphis high school, will deliver graduation speech

Booker T. Washington High School beat out more than 450 other schools in a contest to win a graduation speech from President Obama. Here's how the Memphis, Tenn., school set itself apart.

Adrian Sainz/AP/File
In this April 19 photo, Darrien Little, left, and Kenneth Roberson stand outside Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn. The teens are two of several Booker T. Washington seniors who worked on a video project as part of President Barack Obama's Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.

Students at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn. – located in one of the poorest Zip codes in the country – will get a commencement address from the president of the United States.

The school beat out more than 450 other high schools that entered the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, designed to reward schools making extraordinary progress toward preparing students for college or a career.

"I'm so proud of the schools that participated in this year's commencement challenge and I want to thank all of them for their hard work and dedication," President Obama said in a statement released Tuesday. "Booker T. Washington High School proves what can be accomplished when students, teachers, parents and administrators come together to support achievement in the classroom and I'm looking forward to delivering the commencement address at this extraordinary school soon."

The administration had selected the top six finalists – on the basis of essays, statistics, and videos produced by the schools – and the public voted for the final three. Mr. Obama selected the winner and will speak at commencement on May 16.

This is the second year the administration has held the contest. Last year, Obama addressed seniors at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan.

The three finalists showcased three very different aspects of education reform that the president has championed.

Bridgeport High School, in a rural district in Washington state, has a mostly Hispanic population and is 80 miles from the nearest community college. Its tiny senior class – just 37 students – are all graduating, and all have been accepted to college. Most are the first in their family to graduate from high school.

High Tech High International, in San Diego, is wealthier than the other two finalists – just over a third of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches – but boasts impressive innovation and a culture that encourages students to think for themselves. There are no textbooks in the charter school, or remedial or advanced placement classes. Last year, 99 percent of seniors graduated, and 100 percent were accepted to college.

But both those schools lost out to Booker T. Washington, which encapsulates the deep challenges that the poorest urban schools in the country face, as well as the successes that a few are having.

In its application video, the school highlighted some of the sobering statistics of its community: the 14th highest crime rate in the nation, 70 percent of homes headed by a single parent, a median household income of just $10,734. When local housing projects were demolished last year, 20 percent of the school’s students lost their homes. The school is 100 percent African-American, and 98 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

But Booker T. Washington High has also seen big changes in recent years as it introduces reforms.

In the past four years, its graduation rate has risen from 55 percent to 82 percent, and the percentage of seniors going to college rose from 4 percent to 70 percent between 2005 and 2010. In its video, the school boasted of math scores that are 20 percent higher than the state average. It now has the highest attendance rate and lowest number of violent incidents of Memphis public high schools.

All of this make it a perfect “turnaround” story – even if it’s still a work in progress – for a White House heavily invested in turning around America’s poorest-performing schools.

The school adopted a number of reforms three years ago in an effort to change a trajectory of failure. Among the reforms the Obama administration highlighted were separate freshman academies for boys and girls and increased AP class offerings.

As for disappointed students at Bridgeport and High Tech? They’ve been promised an Obama cabinet speaker at their commencements.

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