President Barack Obama hailed the transformation of a once struggling but venerable Memphis, Tenn., high school last week, telling its graduates: “You inspire me. That’s why I’m here.”
Booker T. Washington High School won the White House’s second annual Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, securing a graduation address from the president by illustrating how it overcame a history of disciplinary problems and high dropout rates to graduate 82 percent of its students and turn into a sanctuary for troubled teens.
Its innovations in recent years have included separate freshman academies for boys and girls and a greater choice, not only of advanced-placement classes, but of vocational studies as well.
“You’ve always been underdogs,” the president told the cheering graduates in Memphis on May 16. “Nobody’s handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you’ll have earned it.”
“You’ve shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will,” Mr. Obama said.
Dating back to 1873, the school was the city’s first to educate black students. Among its graduates are former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks and evangelist and songwriter Lucie Campbell.
Valedictorian Alexis Wilson said that by winning the contest, her school had become a “beacon of hope” for other inner-city schools that face the same circumstances as Booker T. Washington.
“The school has become an indirect spokesperson for all the underdogs in the country,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as Obama Tells Memphis Grads Their Success Inspires Him