On May 10, 2011 the White House announced the winner of the 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge for the nation’s high schools. Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee was selected from six finalists selected out of hundreds of applications. The Commencement Challenge is part of President Obama’s administration’s drive for the U.S. to have the most college graduates in the world by 2020. High schools across the country were asked to showcase the best ways to prepare students for college and future careers.
Booker T. Washington High School opened in 1873 as the first public high school for African-Americans in Memphis. According to CNN.com, today the inner city school’s 500-member student body is 100 percent African-American and 98 percent eligible for free or reduced price lunch, an indication of poverty. The school has a high rate of teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS and a history of violence. Despite these obstacles, the school managed to increase graduation rates from 55 percent to nearly 82 percent in the past four years. This achievement is reported to be a result of focused school reforms. For example, the school principal, Alisha Kiner, implemented gender-based classes for freshmen to reduce classroom distractions, assigned the best teachers in the core subjects of English, math, and science, and increased the number of Advanced Placement courses. CNN.com reported that the school now has the lowest number of incidents of serious violence and the highest rate of attendance of all Memphis high schools. The Memphis Schools Superintendent was quoted as saying “Even though [the students] live in the poorest zip code in the city, the educational outcomes they are producing are among the highest in the city.”
When Vice President Joe Biden called the Washington High School principal on May 10th to announce that the school had won the competition, according to Education Week, “she said she jumped up and down so much that she was shoeless by the time she was done.” Principal Kiner stated that Washington is representative of many struggling schools. She attributes the school’s success to the “family atmosphere” that she has tried to instill since becoming the school’s principal in 2005. School administrators keep close track of students, and a graduation team, including the principal, meets and discusses each student and what troubles or obstacles they face in their lives outside of school. Education Week quoted a male student athlete, who admittedly considered dropping out, now in his senior year, as saying “We are one big family. We are not a perfect family, but we all made an agreement to create a situation we are all comfortable with.”
As the prize for winning the Commencement Challenge, President Barack Obama will be the school’s 2011 graduation speaker.