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Booker T. Washington WINS Visit From President Obama

In M-Town Events! on May 11, 2011 at 8:23 am

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M-Teen Magazine CONGRATULATES Booker T. Washington High!

The White House’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge WINNER

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The Commercial Appeal – May 10, 2011

Photo by Dave Darnell // Buy this photo

Booker T. Washington High School senior Tarvaris Shegog shows his school pride Tuesday as it was announced that President Barack Obama would make the commencement address for the school’s graduating class on Monday.

The Commercial Appeal-

Barack Obama will make his first trip to Memphis as president Monday to give the commencement address at Booker T. Washington High.

Until Tuesday, that seemed like a dream so fragile that words turned to screams, then tears when Principal Alisha Kiner broke the news to students.

“When they ask you how it feels to be in the bottom three (of schools vying for a visit from Obama), tell them you have no idea, because you won!” she shouted in the auditorium that in an instant turned as loud as FedExForum with the Grizzlies in overtime.

“This is history,” said senior Tarvaris Shegog. “If I’m going to get a job and they ask about my high school, I will be able to tell them I graduated from the most historical black high school. The president came to my graduation.”

There is no word yet on the time and place of the ceremony, although seniors have been told they may invite five guests. Honors students get seven tickets.

For Kenneth Roberson, 18, the accomplishment is a recognition of the good in his neighborhood, where the demolished Cleaborn Homes, a heap of brick and dust, is one of the biggest landmarks.

“We want everyone to know that we go through a lot, and we can overcome,” he said, adding that his classmates feel put down and hurt by “the negative thoughts” others have of them.

“Everyone wants the best in life. We are successful. We want everyone to know it. We are one.”

Vice President Joe Biden called Kiner at about 11 a.m. Tuesday with the news, which spread quickly across town.

“He first congratulated me. He called me by my first name, so I know we are friends,” said Kiner, the assuring, funny, kid-affectionate principal.

The first minute she gets with Obama she intends to thank him “for validating the work my kids have done.”

“I’m ecstatic. I almost came to tears,” U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said minutes after it became official. “Booker T. Washington students will have the memory of a lifetime.”

The decisive factor was “not a red-state, blue-state thing,” but the presentation the students made with their video, Cohen said.

At the Air National Guard base where Air Force One will land, “message traffic” started picking up Monday about a presidential visit, said Maj. Kris Jones, who called to give Kiner the heads up early Tuesday.

“The president or vice president will be calling. It’s best if you don’t fall down, Jones said. “Take a drink of water right now.”

By noon, alumni and children of alumni were trickling in, honking horns out front and celebrating while TV cameramen jockeyed for an angle.

Last year, BTW, outpaced state benchmarks in Algebra I by 27 percentage points. Its graduation rate went from 55 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2010.

But for years, Booker T. Washington athletes wore secondhand uniforms passed down from Central High, a succinct reminder of what life was in the segregated South and a poignant piece of BTW lore.

Through the White House’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, students were asked to submit an essay and optional video of why the president should choose them.

BTW was among hundreds of entries.

The students’ message “was getting out the facts about what is going on in their neighborhood and the school itself,” said Lauryn DuValle, a film student at the University of Mississippi who helped with the BTW video.

“They want people to know they aren’t just what the neighborhood is. They are willing to do better and be better.”

When the Memphis Housing Authority announced it was demolishing 650-unit Cleaborn Homes last year, BTW was in danger of losing half its student body overnight, including Tiesha Taylor, now 18, whose family moved to East Memphis.

She, like several hundred other BTW students, chose to commute by MATA bus or car.

“This school made me see things I didn’t see at other schools,” she said, “including the way the teachers make us want to pay close attention.

“We’re all family. This is one of the best moments I can imagine.”

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AP Photo

President Barack Obama will deliver a commencement address in Memphis at Booker T. Washington High School, winner of the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.

Obama to speak to graduates at Booker T. Washington High in Memphis » The Commercial Appeal.

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