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COMMENCEMENT CHALLENGE: Obama Delivers Commencement Address at Memphis High School, Calls for NCLB Rewrite in Weekly Address

“Today, Booker T. Washington is a place that has proven why we can’t accept excuses when it comes to education.”

As the winner of the White House’s 2011 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee welcomed President Obama on May 16, who delivered the graduating class’s commencement address.


commencement challenge


In the school’s video submission for the commencement challenge, students at Booker T. Washington noted the unique challenges they face, including a crime rate in South Memphis that is fourteenth highest in the nation; single parents leading 70 percent of their households; and a median income of $10,734. But students in the video also noted the successes that the high school has achieved. For example, its math scores are 20 percent higher than the state’s math scores; the school’s graduation rate has increased from 55 percent to 82 percent; and, from 2005 to 2010, its college-going rate increased from 4 percent to 70 percent.

In his speech to the graduating class, President Obama mentioned several of the reforms the school has in place, including special academies for ninth graders to ensure that students start off on the right track; Advanced Placement classes and dual enrollment policies that allow students to earn college credit; and a new culture that prizes hard work and discipline and shows every student that they matter and that their teachers believe in them.

“Today, Booker T. Washington is a place that has proven why we can’t accept excuses when it comes to education,” Obama said. “In the United States of America, we should never accept anything less than the best that our children have to offer. 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.”

Obama reminded students that good jobs did not always depend on a good education, but that times have changed. He told students that they were not only competing against students in Nashville and Atlanta but also against those in Beijing and Mumbai. “That’s some tough competition,” Obama said. “Those kids are hungry. They’re working hard. And you’ll need to be prepared for it. And as a country, we need all of our young people to be ready. We can’t just have some young people successful. We’ve got to have every young person contributing [by] earning those high school diplomas and then earning those college diplomas, or getting certified in a trade or profession. We can’t succeed without it.”

In his weekly address on May 21, Obama discussed the reforms he saw at Booker T. Washington High School, including a residency program that pairs new teachers with veteran educators who serve as mentors. He also referenced the Race to the Top program, which is promoting reforms in Oregon, Michigan, and elsewhere where teachers are lengthening the school day, offering more specialized classes, and making necessary changes to improve struggling schools.
“Our challenge now is to allow all fifty states to benefit from the success of Race to the Top,” Obama said. “We need to promote reform that gets results while encouraging communities to figure out what’s best for their kids. That’s why it’s so important that Congress replace No Child Left Behind this year—so schools have that flexibility. Reform just can’t wait.”

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.