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Obama stresses perseverance in high school commencement address

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Obama tells grads to resist quick fix
  • NEW: Kalamazoo Central won nationwide contest
  • NEW: Obama says 'America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central'
  • NEW: President urges students to make service part of their future
  • School was picked from six finalists

(CNN) -- Unlike college, high school commencement addresses aren't usually known to draw celebrity speakers. But for a group of Michigan high school seniors, their Monday night graduation was one they won't likely forget.

"I'm here tonight because I think that America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes for a successful school in this new century," the president of the United States told a packed crowd at Western Michigan University, where the ceremony was moved to accommodate the attendees.

"Educators raising standards and inspiring their students to meet them," President Obama said. "Community members stepping up as tutors and mentors and coaches. Parents taking an active interest in their kids' education -- attending those teacher conferences, turning off that TV, and making sure that homework gets done."

The school earned the presidential visit after winning the administration's first annual "Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge."

"I'm here tonight because after three rounds of competition, with more than 1,000 schools, and more than 170,000 votes cast, I know -- and America now knows -- what you've done at Kalamazoo Central," Obama said.

Video: Obama tells grads to resist quick fix

"Together as a community, you've embraced the motto of this school district: 'Every child, every opportunity, every time,' because you believe, like I do, that every child -- regardless of what they look like, where they come from, or how much money their parents have -- every child who walks through your schoolhouse doors deserves a quality education."

True to many commencement addresses -- especially for high school -- Obama asked the graduates what they intended to do to live up to the responsibility laid on their shoulders after graduation and offered advice for their future.

"First, understand that your success in life won't be determined just by what's given to you, or what happens to you, but by what you do with all of that -- by how hard you try; how far you push yourself; how high you're willing to reach," he said. "Because true excellence comes only through perseverance."

The president told the grads that he didn't understand that idea "back when I was your age."

"I had a tendency, as my mother put it, to act a bit casual about my future," he said. "I was angry and rebellious. I partied a little too much and studied just enough to get by, thinking that hard work and responsibility were old-fashioned conventions that didn't pertain to me."

But, he said, he found that unsatisfying and eventually learned that "meaningful achievement, lasting success -- that doesn't happen in an instant" even though the popular culture "tends to reinforce this approach to life."

He pointed to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter -- a graduate of Kalamazoo Central -- and his striving to improve his game.

"His high school baseball coach once remarked, 'I'm surprised you don't still see the blisters on my hands from hitting ground balls just for Derek.' He always wanted more: 'How about one more turn in the batting cage? Or 25 more ground balls?'"

The president encouraged the graduates to stand strong in the coming years regardless of where their lives take them -- to hold a space for service.

"In the end, service binds us to each other -- and to our communities and our country -- in a way that nothing else can," he said. "It's how we become more fully American."

To compete for the prize Kalamazoo Central ultimately won, students from around the country had to submit a three-minute video and a short essay on how their school was helping prepare students to meet Obama's goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

In its video entry, a parade of Kalamazoo Central students of various nationalities stand before a map of the world and say in their native language that they are going to college.