Michael Alison Chandler of the Washington Post reports that President Obama addressed graduates of a historic African-American high school in south Memphis, Tenn., during a commencement ceremony Monday, marking a milestone for 155 seniors and a success story for an impoverished and long-struggling urban school.
Obama told the packed Cook Convention Center, about a mile from where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, that the graduation of the class of 2011 at Booker T. Washington High School was an "especially hopeful" occasion.
"Just a couple of years ago, this was a school where only about half the students made it to graduation," he said. "Well, we are here today because every single one of you stood up and said, 'Yes, we can. Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can succeed.' "
The Memphis school graduated the city's first class of African-American students 120 years ago and counts among its alumni the city's first black mayor and a former executive director of the NAACP. Today it's essentially still an all-black school in an impoverished neighborhood with high rates of violence and teen pregnancy. A public housing project near the school was demolished recently, and 20 percent of the students had to move, commuting on sometimes long bus routes.
But in recent years the school has increased its graduation rate from 63 percent in 2008 to 82 percent in 2010. Its performance on standardized math tests has increased and now exceeds state averages, and the number of students who go to college has also soared. Obama highlighted the introduction of new college-level courses and a robotics team.
"If success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. It can happen throughout Tennessee. And it can happen all across America," Obama said at the Convention Center, just off the banks of the swelling Mississippi River.
The school's success is what led to its marquee commencement speaker: Obama's speech was the prize for winning a White House-sponsored Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.
It appears that the students at Booker T. Washington High School are rising to the occasion and succeeding despite the odds and challenges. How wonderful is it to win the commencement challenge when facing major flooding and devastation from the swelling Mississippi River? Hopefully the story of how this high school has turned around to produce outstanding graduates once again will help inspire and sustain residents during this trying time.
Read more at the Washington Post.