An academic turnaround at an urban high school with a rich tradition of educating African-Americans has earned graduating seniors a commencement address next week from President Barack Obama.
Booker T. Washington High School found out it was the winner of a national competition in a phone call Tuesday from Vice President Joe Biden. Officials said the speech will be Monday, but the location has not been released.
The school's accomplishment was announced as the city of Memphis is enduring the second-worst flood of its history. The flooding didn't threaten the school building and none of its students were directly affected by the high water.
Principal Alisha Kiner said she jumped up and down so much when she heard the news that she was shoeless by the time she was done. Kiner said Biden spoke with each of six seniors who were in her office when she received the call.
"Out of body experience. Not real. Reeling. Those are words that come to mind right now," said Kiner, who said she wept in private after telling her students.
Tarvaris Shegog, a 19-year-old senior football and baseball player, said he and his fellow students also had tears of joy in their eyes when their principal broke the news.
""We're ready for graduation, we're ready to meet Barack Obama," said Shegog, who is choosing between two colleges, with plans to enter sports broadcasting. "Our motto describes us: We lead and others follow."
A professionally produced video outlined the hurdles the school's 500 students have overcome to win the competition.
The school is in a gritty south Memphis community where the median annual income is less than $11,000 and the crime rate is the 14th highest in the nation. During the last school year, 20 percent of the students lost their homes when their public housing project was closed and demolished.
Many of its students live in tough neighborhoods beset by crime, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and untreated mental illness. A majority of the students are economically disadvantaged, and some are homeless.
Nevertheless, the school improved its graduation rate from 55 percent in 2007 to more than 80 percent in 2010. That improvement was cited as key to winning the administration's Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, which honors schools for preparing students for college and careers.
"I don't think our story is unique," Kiner said. "People struggle, period. That's just a part of life. Our school is representative of a whole lot of schools."
Kiner says the turnaround can be attributed to a family atmosphere that she has tried to instill since taking over in 2005.
She said many students who previously had dropped out did so in the ninth grade. She established a ninth grade "academy" where classes were split up by gender, with boys taught by male teachers and girls getting instruction from female teachers, to reduce classroom distractions.
Administrators keep close track of students, making sure they have their correct addresses and phone numbers. The principal meets with a graduation team to discuss each student and what troubles or obstacles, if any, they face in their lives outside of school. Kiner also built a strong relationship with the principal of the area feeder school.
Shegog admits thinking about giving up on school when he was going through some "ups and downs," but advice from coaches, teachers and principal helped him decide to stay in school.
"We are one big family," Shegog said. "We're not a perfect family, but we all made an agreement to create a situation we are all comfortable with."
A team from the White House is set to visit the school to make arrangements for graduation.
"It's going to feel like my wedding day, without getting married," said senior Audre Johnson, who said she will be studying nursing at Lane College.
Booker T. Washington High was named Clay Street School when it opened in 1873 as the first public high school for blacks in Memphis. Its alumni include Benjamin Hooks, who was executive director of the NAACP, and Willie Herenton, the city's first black mayor.
The other finalists in the competition were High Tech High International in San Diego and Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Wash. The final three were chosen after an Internet vote cut the field from six semi-finalists.