*An academic turnaround at an urban high school with a rich tradition of educating African-Americans has earned graduating seniors a commencement address next week from President Barack Obama.
Booker T. Washington High School found out it was the winner of a national competition in a phone call Tuesday from Vice President Joe Biden. Officials said the speech will be Monday, but the location has not been released.
The school’s accomplishment was announced as the city of Memphis is enduring the second-worst flood of its history. The flooding didn’t threaten the school building and none of its students were directly affected by the high water.
Principal Alisha Kiner said she jumped up and down so much when she heard the news that she was shoeless by the time she was done. Kiner said Biden spoke with each of six seniors who were in her office when she received the call.
“Out of body experience. Not real. Reeling. Those are words that come to mind right now,” said Kiner, who said she wept in private after telling her students.
Tarvaris Shegog, a 19-year-old senior football and baseball player, said he and his fellow students also had tears of joy in their eyes when their principal broke the news.
“”We’re ready for graduation, we’re ready to meet Barack Obama,” said Shegog, who is choosing between two colleges, with plans to enter sports broadcasting. “Our motto describes us: We lead and others follow.”
A professionally produced video outlined the hurdles the school’s 500 students have overcome to win the competition. [Scroll down to watch.]
The school is in a gritty south Memphis community where the median annual income is less than $11,000 and the crime rate is the 14th highest in the nation. During the last school year, 20 percent of the students lost their homes when their public housing project was closed and demolished. A majority of the students are economically disadvantaged, and some are homeless.
Nevertheless, the school improved its graduation rate from 55 percent in 2007 to more than 80 percent in 2010. That improvement was cited as key to winning the administration’s Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, which honors schools for preparing students for college and careers.
“I don’t think our story is unique,” Kiner said. “People struggle, period. That’s just a part of life. Our school is representative of a whole lot of schools.”
The other finalists in the competition were High Tech High International in San Diego and Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Wash. The final three were chosen after an Internet vote cut the field from six semi-finalists.
Below, Booker T. Washington’s finalist video.