"Every commencement is a day of celebration," said the President at the commencement for Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, "But this one is especially hopeful." BTW, as the school is known, was the winner of the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, chosen as a finalist on the basis of its inspiring turn-around story and voted the winner by the public after each finalist school submitted a video making its case. The President continued:
This one is especially hopeful because some people say that schools like BTW just aren’t supposed to succeed in America. You’ll hear them say, “The streets are too rough in those neighborhoods.” “The schools are too broken.” “The kids don’t stand a chance.”
We are here today because every single one of you stood tall and said, “Yes, we can.” (Applause.) Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can succeed. You decided you would not be defined by where you come from but by where you want to go, by what you want to achieve, by the dreams you hope to fulfill.
Supporting these kinds of turnarounds has been a focus of the President’s education policies, from the national Race to the Top contest where states competed to show real reform plans, to School Improvement Grants that demand uprooting entrenched problems, the President has insisted that funding go to states, communities and schools who have refused to give up, and shown their commitment to change so that their kids would be prepared for the competitive world that awaits them after graduation.
Speaking at BTW, where graduation rates went from 55% in 2007 to 81.6% in 2010, the President was clearly inspired to see the faces that represent that kind of change. And as he said, his passion for education is based on his own experience not only as a father, but as a child growing up years ago. He spoke to the graduates on a personal level about the lessons he learned.