May 10th, 2011
03:34 PM ET
WASHINGTON (CNN) - As the Mississippi River rises in Memphis, one group of students and teachers are distracted by some good news.
Their school, Booker T. Washington High School in inner-city Memphis, has won the White House's Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, the White House announced on Tuesday.
Vice President Joe Biden called the school's principal on Tuesday to announce their selection. The school beat out five other public high schools who were finalists in the competition to showcase the best ways to prepare students for college and their future careers.
"Booker T. Washington High School proves what can be accomplished when students, teachers, parents and administrators come together to support achievement in the classroom," President Obama said. "I’m looking forward to delivering the commencement address at this extraordinary school soon.”
According to the school's website, the graduation ceremony will be Friday, May 20th.
The school has high teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS rates, and a history of violence. But the school's graduation rate has risen from 55% to nearly 82% in the past four years.
"Even though they live in the poorest zip code in the city, the educational outcomes that they are producing are among the highest in the city," Memphis Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash said of the Booker T. Washington students.
The inner-city school has a student body that is 100% African-American with 98% of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch.
They had a "culture of failure" according to Cash.
Then three years ago, the school system adopted a menu of reforms that the Memphis high schools could implement to address that problem.
The principal at Booker T. Washington liberally enacted many of the suggestions including gender-based classes for freshmen; assigning the best teachers in the core subjects of English, mathematics and science; and increasing the number of Advanced Placement courses offered to the students.
AP courses are considered a good way to prepare students for the rigor of college.
The school now has the lowest number of serious violence incidents, and the highest attendance rate of all of the Memphis high schools.
This is the second year of the White House's Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. Last year, Kalamazoo Central High School won the contest. The initiative is part of the administration’s challenge for the United States to have the most college graduates in the world by 2020.
CNN's Sally Holland contributed to this story.