Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

President praises Memphis school's 'culture of caring and learning'

By Sally Holland, CNN
  • NEW: "I gave Barack Obama a hug," one student proclaims
  • The president flies to Memphis to address students at a high school
  • He surprises them with a visit prior to their graduation ceremony
  • Booker T. Washington High was the winner of the Race to the Top competition

"Don't Fail Me: Education in America Video" examines the crisis in our public education system and why America's financial future is at risk if our students can't excel math and science. It airs at 8 p.m. ET May 21 on CNN.

Memphis, Tennessee (CNN) -- A hundred and fifty-five Warriors from Booker T. Washington High School received a diploma Monday -- and a handshake from the president of the United States.

"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," President Barack Obama pointed out in his address to the students.

The school's dramatically improved graduation rate was one reason the president came to Memphis on a cool spring day.

Booker T. Washington High is credited with a jump in graduation rate from 55% to 82 % in just four years through the use of gender-based classrooms and increased teacher effectiveness. Teachers who seemed to get more than a year's growth out of their students were moved to the core classes of English and mathematics as part of the school's educational innovation.

"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% of the graduates will continue their education," Obama said.

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 in 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 attributed his success in school to his teachers, who he said 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 Obama would speak to them from the stage during their graduation ceremony, 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 earned the visit from Obama by winning the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, a high school competition in its second year in which high school students write essays and create videos to show how their school is innovative in education.

"In the face of all odds against them succeeding, they are succeeding. That represents the American spirit at it's best," said Kriner Cash, Memphis superintendent of schools.