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BTW 1 of 6 high schools in race to land Obama as speaker

Booker T. Washington principal Alisha Kiner received a call from the White House informing her that BTW was one of the six finalists in a competition that could land President Barack Obama as the commencement speaker. Booker T. Washington principal Alisha Kiner was in the high school’s library on Thursday when she received a call that drove her out the door screaming.

 Alisha Kiner

It was from the White House and the caller was informing her that BTW at 715 S. Lauderdale, 38123, was one of the six finalists in a competition that could land President Barack Obama as the commencement speaker.

Here’s the catch: she couldn’t tell anybody until the next day. And that was no easy task.

“Thousands of schools across the nation applied to have him come speak,” Kiner told students at an assembly at noon Friday. “The next step in this process is…they are going to put all six schools online and then there is voting. The top three vote-getters, the president will choose from those three.”

Then she set the tone for the campaign: “He is going to choose us!”

For these BTW students, the spotlight was on success during and after Friday’s assembly. (Photo by Karanja A. Ajanaku)

The good news accents the effort of students and staff who produced a video sent to the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. The video, set to a John Legend hit, puts the school’s achievements and resolve in the context of the challenge of the 38123 neighborhood.

Memphis City Schools Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash and staff have vowed to do what is necessary to make the choice a no-brainer for President Obama.

“We’re going to get everybody in the Mid-South region to vote for you, BTW. We’re going to vote, and we’re going to vote often,” he said at Friday’s assembly

Cash heaped praise on administration, staff, faculty, and most importantly the students.

The students, said Cash, don’t have it easy and their challenge is not made any easier by the many who harbor a bad perception of the schools.

“Bad is never all the way true, and if you are really, really good it’s never all the way true. There is somewhere in here,” he said, indicating in between.

“BTW has an 82 percent graduation, one of the highest in the city and in the country for a school of your demographics – 100 percent African-American children and young people, 95 percent economically disadvantaged,” said Cash. “But you don’t see that as any excuse whatsoever. You say, ‘we can, will, we are.’”

And against the new, tougher state proficiency standards – the state average was 34 in math, 51 in reading – BTW recorded 52 in math and 54 in reading, said Cash.

BTW has a gender-based freshman academy, gender-based core academic courses and a team-graduation support arm bent on getting students across the graduation finish line. All under the leadership of Kiner, who inherited a 55 percent graduation rate four years ago.

“It’s just stunning….We are so proud of you. I could go on and on about all of the things you are doing here – dual enrollment, more AP courses,” said Cash.

“Ms. Kiner is just knocking the roof off and showing the world what Booker T. Washington can do and therefore what all of us can do.”

Kiner, played reporter during the assembly, quizzing a team of students about what is happening at the school. She used the moment as a teaching opportunity, helping the students get more of a feel for appearing before a crowd. She asked one student what was done to help prepare him for college and career.

“At Booker T. Washington, teachers and faculty set standards for the students,” he said. “We have excellent teachers, coaches…”

And how does it feel to be one of the six finalists?

“It feels exciting,” said another student.

And if you could tell President Obama one thing to get him to come?

“I would tell him that we are a great school for him to come to because we lead, and others follow,” said yet another student.

Cash – recognizing the teaching moment and that some of the students showed their nervousness – said it was OK to be nervous.

According to Cash, here is the timeline: From April 21 to May 3 is the window for online voting. The online address will be announced later by the competition organizers and passed along.

There are 17,000 school districts in the U.S., over 40,000 schools, and over 60 million children in public education, said Cash. “It’s down to 600 students at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee. You are leading the way.”

With an outpouring of support, President Obama “cannot help but pick Booker T. Washington once he sees the community response and the substance that lies behind this great achievement,” said Cash.

Turning into an emcee, Cash ushered faculty and students to the stage to weigh in on the achievement. First up was Erica Davis, advanced placement biology teacher, and the robotics coach.

“What I would like everyone to know is that our students go through a lot on a daily basis,” said Davis, pausing to compose herself as tears flowed.

“They go through things that if I had to go through I can’t tell you that I would be where I am. And I am proud that some of you just get up and come to school in the morning.”

The students went wild. One took the stage.

“I just want to say that it would be nice to have Barack Obama at my graduation,” he said, noting the teachers who did a great job “pushing” him.

The senior class president said, “I would like to say that it would be a great honor to have (President Obama) speak at our graduation, even a great honor to be in the top six because of the trials and tribulations we face.”

Girls basketball coach Derek Hunter said he has sent correspondence to the president, and that he was inspired to do so by the students at BTW.

“Unless you come in here and really see what is going on, you have a perception about what Dr. Cash said, the demographics of this neighborhood,” said Hunter. “They think that we are thugs. They think everybody over here is going to get pregnant. They think that you’re not going to graduate.”

Hunter, who teaches life lessons and wellness, said at a recent exhibition showcasing student talent, the theme was, “I will not become a statistic.”

Hunter said that when he was a student he also was exposed to an environment with people doubting his ability to achieve. He told the story of a sixth-grade teacher who once told him that he would be a “disgrace to his race.”

“Put God first and you can achieve anything,” he said.

(White House blog - Commencement Challenge Finalists)

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