Will Booker T. Washington Have President Obama As Its Commencement Speaker This Year?



BTW principal Alisha Kiner and MCS superintendent Kriner Cash help school students celebrate the prospect of an Obama commencement address.
  • JB
  • BTW principal Alisha Kiner and MCS superintendent Kriner Cash help school students celebrate the prospect of an Obama commencement address.

If Alisha Kiner, principal of Booker T. Washington High School, was having trouble containing her excitement at a press call in the school’s auditorium Friday, despite a video machine that perversely decided not to work, the reason why shortly became obvious.

BTW, the venerable institution which has birthed any number of the city’s leaders, including former Mayor Willie Herenton, but has had its problems in a tough time, is ready again to show its proud side.

Even though the student-produced video that Kiner wanted to show the media never did quite materialize fully, its message was clear from the few scenes and overscripts that did show up on screen. Despite horrifically low income stats and a large incidence of “crime and abandonment” in the families of its student population, despite a “high pregnancy rate” among its students, despite any number of other indignities, BTW could boast of being the “first to educate blacks” in Memphis, the first to “implement gender-based classes,” and it would also be the first to —

It was about at that point that the computer or the connection or whatever started misbehaving, but when Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash, who was running late, finally got there to share in the celebration, principal Kiner just went ahead and made the announcement: The White House — yep, that White House — had called her on Thursday with the news that Booker T. Washington was one of six high schools nationwide, out of thousands of original entrants, to be a finalist in the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge.

And just what is that? From the explanation on the Challenge web site: “The Commencement Challenge invites public high schools across the country to demonstrate how their school best prepares them for college and a career, helping America win the future by out-educating our competitors and achieving President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.”

The misfiring video, when fully seen, demonstrates BTW’s determination to conquer obstacles and documents what Cash reminded the auditorium crowd of students and media had resulted in an 82 percent graduation rate, among other notable achievements. And it obviously made the school’s case well enough to land BTW in the group of six finalist institutions.

And the prize? President Barack Obama will be the commencement speaker this year at the winning institution.

The next phase of the contest requires votes from backers of the school — much in the manner of American Idol and other elimination contests on TV, Kiner pointed out. (Details of how to vote are on the contest website, http://www.whitehouse.gov/commencement.) This phase of the contest lasts from April 21 to May 3 and will depend heavily on vote count, pure and simple. And, just as with Idol and Dancing with the Stars and all those other contests, anybody can vote.

From the three top vote-getting high schools, President Obama himself will make the selection of which school he will address at commencement.

Given the documented burdens that BTW has had to bear, winning and having the nation’s leader on hand this May to hand out diplomas to the school’s own would-be leaders of the future would be a sweet reward indeed.

For the record, these are the six finalist high schools:

• Bridgeport High School (Bridgeport, Washington)
• Wayne Early Middle College High School (Goldsboro, North Carolina)
• Booker T. Washington High School (Memphis, Tennessee)
• Science Park High School (Newark, New Jersey)
• Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, School for Creative and Performing Arts(Pittsburgh, PA)
• High Tech High International (San Diego, CA)

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