Kalamazoo Central wins Obama as graduation speaker
Kalamazoo Central High School in western Michigan has won a national contest to have President Barack Obama as its commencement speaker this spring, the White House announced Tuesday.
The commencement is now scheduled for June 10, but Kalamazoo Public Schools said it might be adjusted based on the White House’s needs.
“I look forward to visiting and speaking at Kalamazoo Central High School later this spring,” Obama said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
In a video announcement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked the five runner-up schools to “please stay tuned. Even though the president won’t make it to your school, we’ll be sending a Cabinet member to each graduation ceremony this spring.”
Mayor Bobby Hopewell and school officials clustered around a laptop computer in Principal Von Washington Jr.’s office burst into applause when Duncan announced the choice.
“We had a hallway full of seniors, and there’s no way you can stop them,” Washington said. He said cheering filled the school when he made an announcement on the PA system.
“You could hear it all through the building on all three floors,” he said. He said he let the celebration run for a while, but “after about an hour, we did go back to business.”
The mayor said the school’s selection is a sign “we’re heading in the right direction. We’re not saying we are there yet.”
Like the rest of Michigan, the city of 75,000 is struggling to regain economic health in the face of an economic downturn and wide gaps between the comfortable and the poor, suburbs and central cities.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm used Twitter to send best wishes, saying “Congratulations to Kalamazoo Central HS – the president will give the commencement address there in June!”
The 1,700-student school was one of three finalists in the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. Cincinnati’s Clark Montessori Junior High and High School and the Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver were the other two finalists.
The three were chosen through public voting on videos and essays submitted by the schools. The White House said more than 170,000 people voted. The contest is part of Obama’s efforts to improve schools and raise graduation rates.
The other semifinalists were Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan.; Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, Calif.; and MAST Academy in Miami.
The White House cited Kalamazoo Central’s 80 percent plus graduation rate and the district’s Kalamazoo Promise program, which is designed to make college education accessible regardless of family income. It also pointed to improvements in academic performance and a culturally rich curriculum.
“While in school, students have the opportunity to participate in a variety of creative programs, such as theme-based schools to improve themselves and support their community,” the White House announcement said.
Kalamazoo Promise is a five-year-old privately funded program that guarantees graduates’ public college tuition. The program has paid out about $17 million for 1,500 district graduates and expects to pay $7.5 million this school year.
Under Kalamazoo Promise, the district’s 11,600 students are guaranteed scholarships covering 65 percent to 100 percent of a student’s college tuition at any of the state’s 15 public universities or 28 community colleges for four years.
The names of the program’s donors remain a mystery to this day, but program administrator Robert Jorth described them as “a small group of very nice people.”
Those who created the promise believed economic development and education are “intensely linked,” he said.
Jorth said Obama’s decision to speak at Kalamazoo Central is “very gratifying.”
“I’m hoping to get a ticket to see it,” he said.
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