May 16th, 2011
03:39 PM ET
From CNN's Sally Holland
MEMPHIS (CNN) – A hundred and fifty-five Warriors from Booker T. Washington received a high school diploma and a handshake from President Obama in Memphis today.
“Just a couple of years ago, this was a school where only about half the students made it to graduation. For a long time, just a handful headed to college each year,” the President pointed out in his address to the students.
The schools graduation rate is one reason the President came to Memphis on this cool spring day. Booker T. Washington High School is credited with a jump in graduation rate from 55% to 82 % in just four years through the use of gender based classrooms and increasing teacher effectiveness by moving teachers that seem to get more than a years growth out of their students to the core classes of English and mathematics.
“Because you created this culture of caring and learning, today we are standing in a very different Booker T. Washington High School. Today, this is a place where more than four out of five students are earning a diploma – a place where 70 percent of the graduates will continue their education.”
The President has set a goal of having the largest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. Booker T. Washington is an inner city school, is a low-income neighborhood with high incidents of teenage pregnancy and violence.
“I gave Barack Obama a hug,” happy graduate Markeshia McKinney said after the ceremony. For her success, she credited her hard work and not falling behind in her schoolwork. McKinney said she plans to take care of her baby that is due in a few weeks for the short-term and go to college in the long-term.
Graduate Catron Roland attributes his success in school to his teachers who pushed him to succeed.
“When I tried to quit, they told me not to, and to come to school every day,” he said.
The students knew President Obama would address to them from the stage, but the president surprised them by visiting them in their holding room prior to the ceremony.
The students bedecked in green and yellow caps and gowns erupted in applause and tears of joy when the president appeared to tell them how inspired he was with their accomplishment of graduating high school.
"A lot of you had to struggle to get here. Most of you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth,” he told them. “What you have shown is determination, what you have shown is character what you have shown is a willingness to work hard, and the ability to steer clear of folks that were trying to send you down the wrong path.”
The students won the visit from President Obama in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, a high school competition in its second year for which high school students write essays and create videos to show how they innovative in education.
“In the face of all odds against them succeeding, they are succeeding. That represents the American Spirit at it’s best.” Dr. Kriner Cash, Superintendent of Schools for Memphis City.