Memphis school wins Race to the Top
Obama speaks at Kalamazoo Central High School's commencement in Michigan last year
May 10th, 2011
03:34 PM ET

Memphis school wins Race to the Top

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.

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Mike, formerly from Syracuse

    How is a school with an 80% graduation rate at the top? More like the race to mediocrity.

    May 16, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • armyvet66

      Mike, did you read the article? Going from a 50% grad rate to 80% is a big deal espceally when the system is not designed for students who attend Booker T. You should be happy, most of these kids will grow up to be someone important and won't be a drain on the economy.

      May 17, 2011 at 10:31 am |
      • SOPHIA


        May 24, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  2. OldieTampaBay

    how great is that? BRAVO!

    May 16, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  3. Beverly NC

    Good for them. Memphis kids could use a role model like President Obama. Memphis was the HQ of a business I worked for. I visited there often and traveled all over the nation on business. I despised Memphis the most of any city I ever was in. It is RACIST, SEGREGATED, SMALL-MINDED, IN-BRED because no one leaves Memphis except to go to Univ of TN or another racsit MS school and then they come back to Memphis. The people are petty, social status is everything, and the whites keep the blacks "in their place". It's very Republcan, of course, based on their values.

    Having President Obama go to a black high school there is hope and optimism for those kids. I'm sure the white population despised the President being there. Probably half are "birthers" The most backward and valueless town I have ever been to and I never plan to go there again.

    May 17, 2011 at 4:45 am |
    • Jay in NC

      Memphis has been ran by black mayors for over 20 years. The majority, 61 % of citizens are black. Memphis was ranked the 4th most dangerous city with a population of 500,000 or higher in the U.S. I think the problems of Memphis run deep, no one group white or black, can be blamed or praised.

      May 17, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  4. slipthalo

    Way to go Booker T Wshington HS! Your faculty, administrators, parents and most of all your students should be so proud of the accomplishments made and knowing you can achieve if you work together. The country is proud of you as they should be!

    May 17, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • SOPHIA


      May 24, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  5. Tom

    55% to 82% graduation sounds like an impressive gain. I've seen other school administrators crow about how they've improved this or that achievement mark or measure. Closer examination has always revealed that their real accomplishment came from rigging the numbers and excluding the poorest students from the measurement sample. I don't know if BTW administrators did that, but it wouldn't be at all uncommon if they had. And that's really the problem with being able to believe it. The school admins have an economic incentive to fix the measurements anyway they can in order to show some kind of targeted gain; the money they get can often depend on it. Four years from now, let's examine each of them again and see where that education wound up.

    May 17, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  6. USPatriot38

    A role model like Obama. Heaven help me. These braindead supporters or so ignorant. They really think their man isa worthy President. But Oh well if it wasn't for the misbegotten cacausion's who voted for him he wouldn't be sitting in the Oval Office chair now. We will turn that around in 2012.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Cosmo

      Next time you feel the need to insult people by calling them brain-dead and ignorant, you should take the time to proof read your comments so that you don't have spelling mistakes. It kind of makes you look, well, brain-dead and ignorant. Just sayin'...

      May 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  7. Liz Carter in Georgia

    You people dig hard to find something wrong with everything this PRESIDENT does, including his trying to encourage the children of a disenfranchised environmental section of the south, to keep their eyes on the prize, study, stay in school, learn something, thereby becoming an asset to our nation rather than a liability! What can this man be thanked for trying to do ever? I believe the problem is, people like USPatriot38 detest intelligently, well-read, qualified black AMERICANS anyway! Keep'em dumb, huh?

    May 18, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • SOPHIA


      May 24, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  8. Liz Carter in Georgia

    USPatriot38 aka Gaylon Barrow, you're the exact type of a mindset I usually speak to in my posts most of the time. I know where your heart is and where it isn't. You've never fooled me, EVER! However, just know that the caucasians that you speak of, that helped us to put OBAMA in office will most likely help to put him back in! You wouldn't even be accepted in that intelligent group. So when you say 'WE', there's not enough of you all to stop the movement, Mr '30 year retired army; two tours Vietnam'! LOL!

    May 18, 2011 at 3:03 pm |