Obama Tells Memphis Graduates Education Key to Beating Odds

President Barack Obama told students at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, where the graduation rate has jumped in the past four years, that they are a model of success for the U.S. education system.

“Some people say that schools like BTW just aren’t supposed to succeed in America,” Obama said in a commencement address today. “We are here today because every single one of you stood tall and said, ‘Yes we can.’”

Students from the school submitted a video to compete in this year’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, with the prize being a presidential commencement address.

The video highlighted the odds the students overcame to graduate. The median income in South Memphis, from which the school draws its students, is $10,731, and 70 percent of homes are run by a single parent. “I will not be a statistic,” the students said in the video.

The school’s graduation rate went from 55 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2010, according to the White House.

Just a few years ago, Obama said, only about half the students at the school made it to graduation and only “a handful” went to college. Today, “many will be the very first in their families to go to college,” he said.

Spreading Success

“That’s why I came here today -- because if success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis,” the president said. “It can happen throughout Tennessee. And it can happen all across America.”

Obama’s Race to the Top initiative offers money for states that follow the administration’s prescriptions for raising standards in grade schools and high schools. Obama proposed $1.4 billion for the Education Department for competitions such as Race to the Top in his fiscal 2012 budget. The administration already has doled out $4.35 billion to states in two rounds of funding.

Before going to the school Obama spent about 35 minutes meeting with victims of flooding from the Mississippi River as well as rescue workers and local officials.

Obama told them the federal government will be “there for you,” according to White House press secretary Jay Carney.

He was accompanied by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, the mayor of Memphis, A.C. Wharton, and the state’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julianna Goldman in Memphis at jgoldman6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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