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3 high schools vie to get Obama for commencement

By Sally Holland, CNN
  • Announcement will be made this week on which school has won the challenge
  • Memphis high school's graduation rate has risen from 55% to 82%
  • High Tech High in San Diego touts creative learning
  • All seniors at school in Washington state have been accepted to college this year

Washington (CNN) -- Three academically competitive high schools from different areas of the country are competing for a lofty prize: an appearance and a speech from President Barack Obama at their spring commencement ceremony.

Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, is in an inner city school with high teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS rates and a history of violence. But the school's graduation rate has risen from 55% to 82% in the past four years.

Bridgeport High School in a rural district of Washington state is 90% Hispanic, and the majority of the students are the first to graduate high school. With a graduation rate of 100%, this year's crop of seniors have been accepted to college.

High Tech High School in San Diego, with a graduation rate of 99%, is not so much a technology school as its name implies. It's a place that pushes its students to think creatively and to understand and solve problems without the use of textbooks.

One of the three schools will learn this week that they won the right to hear the commander-in-chief deliver a commencement speech at their graduation. The schools initially were notified that the announcement would come Monday, but it has been delayed, leaving them on pins and needles a bit longer.

Many more U.S. schools initially applied for the distinction, but the academic rigor, high graduation rates and college expectations of these three institutions made them finalists in the 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. For the competition, public schools through essays, statistics and videos showed how they promote college and career readiness, and increased achievement for their students. The public voted online to narrow the six semifinalists to the top three. It's up to the White House to make the final decision. The contest is sponsored by the White House, Viacom and the Get Schooled Foundation.

"It was humbling to have hundreds of extraordinary schools apply to the challenge, and knowing how hard they work every day to serve their students and communities makes the president's decision of choosing just one very tough," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

"Even though they live in the poorest ZIP code in the city, the educational outcomes that they are producing are among the highest in the city," Memphis Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash said of the Booker T. Washington students.

The inner-city school has a student body that is 100% African-American with 98% of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

They had a "culture of failure" according to Cash.

Then, three years ago, the school system adopted a menu of reforms that the Memphis high schools could implement to address that problem.

The principal at Booker T. Washington liberally enacted many of the suggestions, including gender-based classes for freshmen; assigning the best teachers in the core subjects of English, mathematics and science; and increasing the number of Advanced Placement courses offered to the students.

AP courses are considered a good way to prepare students for the rigor of college.

The school now has the lowest number of serious violence incidents, and the highest attendance rate of all of the Memphis high schools.

As for winning the Commencement Challenge, "it would mean so much to the students," said Cash. "Just to get up sometimes and come to school with what they face the night before or the day before, you and I couldn't do it."

The town of Bridgeport sits on the Columbia River in rural Washington state. Its main industry is agriculture, specifically apples and cherries.

The closest college is Wenatchee Valley Community College 80 miles away, making it difficult for the student to conceptualize going to college, according to Principal Tamra Jackson.

In 2003, Bridgeport High School offered only one college-level course in English. Now, it has 16 courses that students can take to earn college credit.

Jackson said that the school system upped the offerings by taking teachers who already had master's degrees -- which are generally required for college teaching.

It sent them to Wenatchee Valley Community College to get certified to teach college courses at the high school.

It brought the teachers back to Bridgeport and started offering the college-credit courses to the students.

This year, all of the students in the senior class have applied and been accepted to college and many are starting out with college credits already under their belts.

The school now has a "college-going philosophy," according to Jackson. "You aren't cool if you aren't taking at least one AP or college course," she said.

High Tech High School in San Diego doesn't have the high poverty or rural issues that the other two finalists face. They instead point to their innovative approach to learning that pushes students to think for themselves.

"We don't have the traditional high school textbooks, but our students do read a lot," said Dean of Students Melissa Agudelo. Students are pushed to read up-to-date information on their area of study from a variety of sources.

"We don't want our students to read just one viewpoint out of a textbook, we want them to be critical. Being confident enough to be critical is what creates in kids the willingness to be original and innovate," Agudelo said.

She admits that all three of the finalists in the Commencement Challenge appear to be excellent schools, but if Obama is looking for a school that is pushing innovation to keep the U.S. competitive in the 21st century, then High Tech High School does it best.

Senior Rishika Daryanani, who co-chaired the school's initial application, said she is ecstatic that High Tech made it this far in the competition and she can't wait to see if it wins. If it does, she said, she thinks she will cry.

Back in Washington state, Bridgeport Principal Jackson is excited but a little wary. The Bridgeport students have AP testing this week, so they will need to focus on their schoolwork while emotionally dealing with either their school's win or its loss in the Commencement Challenge.