Skip to main content

Miami school's turnaround wins Obama's attention

By Rich Phillips, CNN Senior Producer
Miami Central Senior High School teacher John Thornburgh is part of a new wave of recruits hired right out of school.
Miami Central Senior High School teacher John Thornburgh is part of a new wave of recruits hired right out of school.
  • Miami Central Senior High School once was failing but appears to be making progress
  • President Barack Obama will tout education initiatives in visit to school
  • Miami Central received federal grants that support improvement of low-achieving schools
  • School officials say they worry state education budget cuts may affect progress
  • Education
  • Barack Obama
  • Education Policy
  • Miami
  • Florida

See local coverage of President Obama's visit to Miami at CNN affiliate WFOR

Miami (CNN) -- You could barely hear the dismissal buzzer over the sound of the pressure cleaner. But as school officials tried to spruce up their campus a bit, the buzz inside the hallways was almost as loud.

The Miami Central Senior High School was gearing up for a visit Friday from President Barack Obama. The president touted education at the school, which once was failing miserably but appears to be turning it around.

"I look at the community and where we've been, the struggle, everything that's been negative, and to bring the president here is amazing," school principal Rennina Turner said.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush joined Obama, who highlighted the importance of "out-educating U.S. competitors, to win the future," according to the White House.

"It's inspiring to think about where you were a few years ago, and where you are today," President Obama said to the students. "You came together to turn this school around, and I think the rest of us can learn something from that," CNN affiliate WFOR reported.

The President said that students "can't even think about dropping out," and that the students across the country are going to need to continue their education past their senior year.

"More than ever before, companies hire where the talent is," Obama said. "Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education past a high school degree."

The president noted that "we're in a difficult fiscal situation." But the country can't "cut back on investments like education, which will help us grow our economy," he said, according to WFOR. "When we sacrifice our commitment to education we're sacrificing our future."

Not too long ago, the future didn't seem so bright for the inner-city school, whose student scores earned it an "F" on state reports from 2007 to 2009. In danger of being closed and taken over by the state, the school upped its grade to a "D" last year and a "C" this year.

Some students used to worry about their future, and chances for college, because they attended Miami Central.

"I thought I was going to be shunned. ... They're going to judge me differently," said senior Ashley Wyche, 17, who is hoping to attend art design school. "However, we prospered, and our grades went up, and I'm proud to say I'm a Central student when I put it on my college application."

Miami Central has received federal grants that support the improvement of low-achieving schools. The U.S. Department of Education provided $546 million for School Improvement Grants nationwide, with $800,000 going to Miami Central.

That money brought in new technology and teaching tools, paid for coaches in reading, math and science, and allowed a three-hour Saturday academy to open for students who need extra help. The school also began a program to engage parents.

But school officials said all problems can't be solved with money.

"Identify individuals who want to be part of the change -- whether it's students, teachers or administrators -- and have people here who want to be here, for the good of the cause," said Turner, who is in her first year as principal but has been at the school four years.

Officials said a new winning culture and fresh blood were needed, with money going to the right things.

"We've replaced over 50% of the faculty in the last two years," said Nikolai Vitti, an assistant superintendent in the Miami-Dade County school system. "It's brought new energy and a greater willingness to go above and beyond for our kids."

Miami Central is one of 19 schools in Miami-Dade County targeted as persistently low performers that needed a boost. These schools, called the "Rising 19," received $14 million as part of the Education Transformation Office. School officials said all the schools are showing improvement.

"They have teachers pushing them," Miami Central teacher John Thornburgh said of the students. "But they also believe in themselves, and they know that the minimum is no longer possible nor is it acceptable."

At the school for a year, Thornburgh is part of a new wave of teachers hired right out of school. He's part of Teach for America, a program that recruits the nation's top academic students to be instructors in low-income areas.

"They are the highest performers with a true commitment," Vitti said. "We recruited these higher achievers and paid them $3,000 extra a year."

But while the federal government is putting money into the school, the state of Florida may soon be taking away some funds. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican elected in November, has proposed a two-year budget that would cut state education funding by 15% -- about $703 less per child.

School officials said they worry their progress may soon hit a bump in the road as the state Legislature debates the budget in the coming months.

"We don't want to lose the resources we have because the results, of course, will decrease," the principal said.

For now, the school is enthusiastic about its improved grades, and it views the president's visit as a symbol of that improvement.

"I'm really honored to hear that he's coming here and to see that he cares about the progress in schools," said senior Ivonne Arevelo, 17.

The students said the turnaround began once their morale was raised.

"Make sure the students feel welcomed," senior Alex Favela said.