Miami's Education Success Story

President Obama and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush visited Miami Central Senior High School on Friday. The traditionally low-achieving school has replaced its principal and much of its staff, and saw academic standing improve dramatically.

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As the White House seized that job news yesterday, President Obama went to Miami. He was there to talk about an issue that has bipartisan support, education reform. The president visited a Miami high school with an inspiring comeback story. NPR's Greg Allen reports he was joined by a well-known Florida Republican: the former governor, Jeb Bush.

GREG ALLEN: There are many lessons to be learned from Miami's Central High School. The first is that when there's a president visiting, 600 students can make a lot of noise.

President BARACK OBAMA: It is good to be here today.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. OBAMA: I'm excited.

ALLEN: Miami-Dade is the nation's fourth-largest school district, and for many years Central was one of its worst high schools. A perennial underachiever, for years it consistently ranked as a failing, F school. President Obama noted that in one survey, only a third of students said they felt safe at school.

Mr. OBAMA: I mean, this used to be a place where the problems on the streets followed kids into the classrooms. It was hard for young people to learn; where the dream of college was out of reach for too many; where there was a culture of failure.

ALLEN: Three years ago, local school officials, backed up by federal grants, began an aggressive program to improve the quality of education at Central. A key part of the transformation came with the staff: The principal and half of the teachers were replaced. Instead of an F, last year Central was ranked as a C school because, as the president noted, test scores improved.

Mr. OBAMA: Performance has skyrocketed by more than 60 percent in math, about 40 percent in writing.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. OBAMA: Graduation rates went from 36 percent - now they're at 63 percent, and I expect them to be at 100 percent.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ALLEN: The president was joined by Jeb Bush, Florida's former governor, a Republican, and the brother of the man Mr. Obama replaced in the White House.

As governor, Jeb Bush pushed statewide testing, teacher accountability and other ideas that were controversial, but which have generally been credited with improving Florida education. Many of his harshest critics were Democrats, but that didn't stop him from joining the president. Education achievement, Bush said, doesn't belong to either party.

Former Governor JEB BUSH (Republican, Florida): It is an issue of national priority. States must be held accountable for setting high expectations for all students. Every child, regardless of their ZIP code or family income, should have access to a quality education.

ALLEN: For President Obama, Jeb Bush was a welcome Republican presence in a swing state that will be crucial in next year's election. But while the former governor was warmly applauded inside the Central High School gymnasium, outside, teachers gathered to send a different message.

Mr. TOM LANDER (Teacher): I was disappointed that Jeb Bush was sharing a stage with the president.

ALLEN: High school history teacher Tom Lander was there with a group from his teachers' union. Teachers feuded with Jeb Bush for much of the time he served as governor.

Middle-school teacher Sofia Miller(ph) said she resents the statewide testing imposed by Bush. When students fare poorly on the test, she says, teachers take the blame.

Ms. SOFIA MILLER (Teacher): But they don't put any money towards education so that we can support our students. And so basically, we're fighting for our salaries, we're fighting to educate our students in our society.

ALLEN: Both President Obama and Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho noted that the changes at Miami's Central High School were only possible because of the cooperation and participation of the teachers' union. Carvalho said the real threat to continued improvement of Miami-Dade County public schools isn't the teachers' union, but big funding cuts proposed by the current governor, Rick Scott.

Mr. ALBERTO CARVALHO (Superintendent, Miami-Dade County Public Schools): You know, if MDCPS was a Wall Street call symbol, this would be a stock you'd want to invest in, considering what's happened here at Central. So cutting the funding does not make sense.

ALLEN: If tight state budgets lead to big cuts in education funding, Carvalho says it will be a setback not just to local districts, but also to President Obama's push to improve the quality of the nation's school.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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