Yesterday in Memphis, President Obama spoke at the Booker T. Washington High School's graduation -- their reward for winning the 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. BTW high school, as it’s known, turned itself around in nearly every imaginable way: it improved the graduation rate by more than 26 percent, started an AP curriculum, implemented innovative teaching techniques, and created a school culture of achievement. In short, BTW became a model of change and education reform.
Only a few years ago, roughly half of BTW’s population graduated, and even fewer went on to college. Since taking office, President Obama has focused on improving the quality of education at schools like BTW – reforms driven by teachers, principals, parents, and entire communities that commit themselves to a better future for their children. And that focus has paid off, especially for this Memphis high school.
As the President said:
This [commencement speech] is especially hopeful because some people say that schools like BTW just aren’t supposed to succeed in America. You’ll hear them say, “The streets are too rough in those neighborhoods.” “The schools are too broken.” “The kids don’t stand a chance.”
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. 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.
BTW improved its graduation rate from 55 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2010 – a monumental achievement in such a short time – but President Obama made clear that high school was only the beginning for these students:
So, class of 2011, the hard road does not end here. Your journey has just begun. Your diploma is not a free pass. It won’t protect you against every setback or challenge or mistake. You’ll make some, I promise. You’re going to have to keep working hard. You’re going to have to keep pushing yourselves. And you’ll find yourselves sometime in situations where folks have had an easier time, they’re a little bit ahead of you, and you’re going to have to work harder than they are. And you may be frustrated by that.
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. I’m hopeful and I’m excited about what all of you can achieve. And I know that armed with the skills and experience and the love that you’ve gained at Booker T. Washington High School, you’re ready to make your mark on the world.
Before the commencement ceremony began yesterday, the 2011 BTW class got a backstage surprise from… you’ll never guess... President Obama. Watch the video of the very surprised graduates, and the equally inspired President: