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President Obama crowns BTW’s achievement

The story of Booker T. Washington High School’s race to the top of President Barack Obama’s High School Commencement Challenge can be told in myriad ways, but in every salient account, the students are the central characters.
“It’s not where you are or what you are. It’s who you are,” President Obama told members of the Booker T. Washington Class of 2011. (Photo by Warren Roseborough)

by Karanja A. Ajanaku

and Tony Jones

The story of Booker T. Washington High School’s race to the top of President Barack Obama’s High School Commencement Challenge can be told in myriad ways, but in every salient account, the students are the central characters.

President Barack Obama immediately found himself in good company upon landing in Memphis to deliver the graduation address at Booker T. Washington High School, the winner of the 2011 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge on Monday (May 16). (Photo by Tyrone P. Easley)

Valedictorian Alexis Wilson (l-r), Vashti Taylor, salutatorian, and Christopher Dean lead their BTW graduating class in singing the 2011 theme song, “I Am One.” Principal Alisha Kiner – credited with leading the school’s turnaround – is second from the left. (Photo by Warren Roseborugh)

With diploma in tow, Christopher Dean, the “face” of Booker T. Washington’s highly-touted Commencement Challenge video entry, accepts congratulations from President Barack Obama. (Photo by Warren Roseborough)

“We are here today because every single one of you stood tall and said, ‘Yes, we can. Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can succeed,’” the President said during BTW’s commencement exercise at the Cook Convention Center in downtown Memphis on Monday.

“You decided you would not be defined by where you come from but by where you want to go, by what you want to achieve, by the dreams you hope to fulfill.”

The truth is that others have said similar things about the students at Booker T. Washington High School in recent days. That’s because of the school’s academic transition. On Monday, however, it was clear that when President Obama covered that ground, many who heard him were elevated unlike before.

“Just a couple of years ago, this was a school where only about half the students made it to graduation. For a long time, just a handful headed to college each year,” said the President. “But at Booker T. Washington, you changed all that.”

As one of the 155 graduates, Aramis Higgins is one of the change agents about whom President Obama spoke. Higgins, who lives in the Foote Homes housing development near the historic South Memphis school, now is focused on sports medicine.

“I want to make something good happen in my neighborhood and my community by being the first one from my family to graduate from college so I can show my kids and grandkids a better way,” said Higgins.

“I push myself away from all the thuggin’ and stuff to try to make a better way for myself. This experience, just to shake his hand, it was amazing. Something I can tell my children and grandchildren, I beat the odds and met the president of the United States.”

The zip codes that feed students into BTW reflect some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Memphis City Schools Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash has described BTW and it’s current scenario this way:

“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.”

Many are raised in single-parent homes, and the fact that President Obama ascended from such a home environment was noted by student speaker Christopher Dean – the ‘face’ of the school’s Commence Challenge video entry – and by the President himself.

“As Chris said, my father left my family when I was two years old. And I was raised by a single mom, and sometimes she struggled to provide for me and my sister,” the President said.

“But my mother, my grandparents, they pushed me to excel. They refused to let me make excuses.”

Booker T. Washington, he said, has proven why no excuses can be accepted when it comes to education. He stressed that a new culture had taken root in the school, largely with principal Alisha Kiner leading the way.

“You created special academies for ninth graders to start students off on the right track. You made it possible for kids to take AP classes and earn college credits. You even had a team take part in robotics competition so students can learn with their hands by building and creating,” said President Obama.

“And you didn’t just create a new curriculum, you created a new culture – a culture that prizes hard work and discipline; a culture that shows every student here that they matter and that their teachers believe in them. As Principal Kiner says, the kids have to know that you care, before they care what you know.”

Piggybacking off of a statement made by one of the school’s teachers, Steve McKinney, the President said, “We need everyone to broaden their ideas about what is possible. We need parents, politicians, and the media to see how success is possible, how success is happening every day.”

That, he said, is why he chose to come to Memphis.

“Because if success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. And if it can happen in Memphis, it can happen anywhere in Tennessee. And if it can happen anywhere in Tennessee, it can happen all across America.”

Dignitaries on hand for President Obama’s commencement address included Tennessee’s Gov. Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s two Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis). School Board Commissioner Dr. Jeffrey F. Warren said people should look at the BTW scenario and realize that similar successes are evident “all over the city.”

“Don’t let one negative story you may hear take away from all the positive achievements city school kids make every day,” said Warren. “Thousands of our kids are beating the odds every day, you just don’t see it in the press.”

Arthur Williams, a bus driver for Cline Tours, shuttled a load of BTW students to the event, and what he saw stimulated him.

“Oh man, they were excited, but still polite and quiet,” said Williams. “This one has been like no other trip I’ve ever had. I drove during an event when President George Bush was here, but it was nothing like this. This is really special. The kids were really anxious to get here and meet the president, but they were very well behaved.”

That observation linked to another of President Obama’s observations: that the success of the economy depends on skills, while the success of the community is dependent upon the ability to follow the Golden Rule, treating others as each would like to be treated.

“We’ve seen how important this is even in the past few weeks, as communities here in Memphis and all across the South have come together to deal with floodwaters, and to help each other in the aftermath of terrible tornadoes,” he said.

Diplomas are not free passes and the hard road does not end with graduation, President Obama said.

“But if you do push yourselves, if you build on what you’ve already accomplished here, then I couldn’t be more confident about your futures.”

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