MEMPHIS — 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.
Principal Alisha Kiner said she jumped up and down so much that she came out of her shoes when she heard the news.
“Out of body experience. Not real. Reeling. Those are words that come to mind right now,” Kiner 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.
The White House said more details would be released soon about when Obama would speak at the school.
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.