Commencement Challenge Winner: Obama Chooses High School in Waterlogged Memphis

May 10, 2011 1:55pm

ABC News' Sunlen Miller reports: The graduating class at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn., has won a commencement speech by President Obama during their graduation ceremony this spring.

The high school is in an impoverished area close to the site of Martin Luther King's assassination and where Benjamin Hooks, the late head of the NAACP, attended high school. Memphis has been hit hard by recent flooding as well.

For the second year of the administration’s annual “Commencement Challenge,” schools were asked to submit a video demonstrating their commitment to preparing students for college and a career.

Booker T. Washington’s video tugged at the heart strings, with the opening scene showing housing projects being torn down in black-and-white. They highlighted how the community and the school rebuilt and helped students gain confidence and skills to graduate.

Six finalists were selected for their “creativity in engaging and supporting students, academic results, and progress in preparing students to graduate college and career ready,” the White House said. Of the final three finalists, chosen by votes online, the president chose the final winner personally.

Some of the school’s progress the White House hailed when making the announcement today — Booker T. Washington High School’s graduation rate went from 55 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2010. 

“The school has taken steps such as establishing separate freshmen academies for boys and girls to help students adjust to the school culture and creating an atmosphere where teachers take personal interest in seeing students take pride in their schoolwork,” the White House said, adding that students can now take AP classes and earn college credits.

“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,” said President Obama said in a paper statement.  “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 high school’s gradation is currently scheduled for Friday, May 20th. Last year, when speaking at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan, the 2010 Commencement Challenge winners, the graduation date had to be rearranged to accommodate the school’s last-minute keynote speaker.

In March, just one month after announcing the contest again, the White House reached a challenge of its own. Just three days before the original deadline to enter, the White House had only received 14 applicants, a far cry from the thousands of schools who applied for the first honor. The deadline was ultimately extended to gain more entrants.

– Sunlen Miller

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