President Obama to speak at BTW's graduation in Memphis - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

President Obama to speak at BTW's graduation in Memphis

(WMC-TV) - An academic turnaround at an urban high school with a rich tradition of educating African-Americans has earned graduating seniors a commencement address 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.

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.

"I'm very excited," said Kenneth Robeson, a member of the class of 2011. "In fact, when I first heard it, I almost cried but I held it together."

Principal Alisha Kiner said she jumped up and down so much that she came out of her shoes when she heard the news.  Kriner said her school earned the victory through hard work, passion, and determination.

"The students are the ones who did the work, and they should be commended," she said.

A professionally produced video outlined the hurdles the school's 500 students have overcome to win the competition.

The school is in a gritty south Memphis neighborhood where the median annual income is less than $11,000 and the crime rate is the 14th highest in the nation. Last year 20 percent of the students lost their homes when their public housing project was closed and demolished.

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.

"Looking at everybody and what we've been throughout the year, and how people have been telling us that the president's not coming, and now that he is, it's just showing that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to," senior student Vashti Taylor said.

The White House said Obama's visit was scheduled for Monday, and aditional details would be forthcoming.

Booker T. Washington High opened in 1873 as the first public high school for blacks in Memphis. Its alumni include Benjamin Hooks, who was executive director of the NAACP, and Willie Herenton, the city's first black mayor.

The other finalists in the competition were High Tech High International in San Diego and Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Wash.

Copyright 2011 WMC-TV. All rights reserved. The AP contributed to this story.

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