Kalamazoo Central High School valedictorian Cindy Lee is far less jittery about speaking to hundreds of her fellow graduates Monday than she is about sharing a stage with one man: President Barack Obama.
Obama will be giving a graduation speech of his own to the 1,700-student southwest Michigan school, which snagged the honor for winning the national Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge.
“The whole school is excited about it. The whole community is excited. It’s on the news every single day,” Lee, 18, said last week. “And I’m also kind of nervous about giving a speech at the same time as the president.”
While Lee said Obama’s presence won’t mean changes for her speech, it does mean some unusual preparations for a high school graduation, including background checks on graduating seniors who might get to meet the president and restrictions on the number of invitees.
Each of 300 graduates received eight tickets to the ceremony at Western Michigan University’s 5,000-seat University Arena. Students at the district’s three high schools also could get tickets, but the event is not open to the general public.
A few thousand community members have instead gotten tickets to watch the event on big screen TVs at three locations across the city. A Kalamazoo church also will carry a live broadcast.
The last presidential speech at a high school commencement was in 2008, when President George W. Bush spoke to graduates of Greensburg High School in Kansas about a year after the town had been devastated by a tornado.
Lee expects Obama to talk to Kalamazoo about the importance of expanding and improving education, especially because the contest that brings him there was held as part of his administration’s focus on improving graduation rates and school performance.
Kalamazoo Central was one of three Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge finalists chosen through public voting on videos and essays submitted by the schools. The White House said more than 170,000 people voted. Cincinnati’s Clark Montessori Junior High and High School and the Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver were the other finalists.
In choosing the Michigan school, the White House noted the district’s privately and anonymously funded Kalamazoo Promise program. The district’s 11,600 students are guaranteed scholarships covering 65 percent to 100 percent of a student’s college tuition at any of the state’s 15 public universities or 28 community colleges for four years.
The five-year-old program has paid out about $17 million for 1,500 graduates and expects to pay $7.5 million this school year.
The White House also cited Kalamazoo Central’s 80 percent-plus graduation rate, improvements in academic performance and a culturally rich curriculum.
Education is widely viewed as one hope for Michigan’s long-struggling economy.
The state has had the nation’s highest unemployment rate for four consecutive years, including a 14 percent jobless rate in April. Thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost, many connected to the auto industry. Those jobs likely are gone for good, and the state is trying to diversify its economy with alternative energy, biomedical and other jobs — most of which require education beyond high school.
The president’s visit has many in Kalamazoo feeling their work is paying off.
“It’s the effort of the whole community, a joint effort, that has gained the attention of the President of the United States,” said Pastor Addis Moore of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which will broadcast the ceremony on a first-come, first-served basis.
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