Kalamazoo High School Wins Big

Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Kalamazoo Central High school was selected as the winner of the 2010 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. The prize - having President Barack Obama address the graduating class during the school's commencement ceremony this spring. Over one thousand public high schools nationwide applied for the privilege. Host Michel Martin talks to Von Washington, the principal of Kalamazoo Central High, about the school's win and what does it take to maintain academic excellence amidst financial and social challenges.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, what's a writer and ballet dancer doing in a hip-hop class? How about learning about the value of being out of place? That conversation is coming up next.

But first, we continue with another education story. Yesterday, the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who you just heard from, announced the winner of the 2010 race to the top high school commencement challenge. It was Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

More than 1,000 public high schools nationwide competed for the prize of having President Barack Obama deliver the commencement address during their spring graduation ceremony. The White House initiative was aimed at increasing academic excellence and the ability of schools to prepare students for college.

Joining us to talk more about this victory is Kalamazoo Central High School principal Von Washington. Welcome, congratulations.

Mr. VON WASHINGTON (Principal, Kalamazoo Central High School): Thank you very, very much.

MARTIN: How did you hear that you had won?

Mr. WASHINGTON: We received a phone call and that phone call came right into the high school office here. And I got a chance to talk to them at the White House which was just, you know, amazing enough. And they told us that it was narrowed down to six. And then we were in a field of six that had to be narrowed down to three. And then President Obama took a look at the three videos and made his choice.

And yesterday, actually, we found out by looking on the website because they were going to make an announcement at 11:00 from the White House.

MARTIN: And so, you were in place. Was the whole school watching or just the school leadership?

Mr. WASHINGTON: There were a lot of staff that were down here watching and a few students that put together the original essays for the application. And then what we have been doing when we have announcements is that I'll go on the P.A. system and let the rest of the school know. But you can rest assured everybody was kind of holding their breath at that time waiting for the announcement.

MARTIN: And what was that like when it came through?

Mr. WASHINGTON: It was just fantastic. In the office they were cheering, everybody that was here. And then the students started to hear bits and pieces and they were wondering and they were outside of the office with their faces just plastered to the windows waiting to hear it from school leadership. And then we announced it and then I think the building maybe shifted about two feet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Everybody was cheering. But it was a cool experience.

MARTIN: Well, central to your success in this endeavor was a video that was sent to the White House, which a number of it was actually a committee of top White House officials viewed. And I'll just have to play a short clip just so that people can get a and we will have a link on our site, actually. We'll have a link to the White House site so that people can see the whole video for themselves. But you just get a flavor of what turned the tide. Here it is.

(Soundbite of clip)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) We are the giants.

Mr. XAVIER BOLDEN: Kalamazoo Central is a place...

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) We are the giants.

Mr. BOLDEN: ...where giants thrive, a dedicated space made great by its ability to contain the elements and equations necessary to exceed every expectation placed in our past.

MARTIN: Who is the student narrator, by the way?

Mr. WASHINGTON: The young man's name is Xavier Bolden and he just did a wonderful, wonderful job, what is called slam poetry is the idea and the thought behind what he was performing. And he's just very, very passionate and he typifies a student that has had some ups and downs through his high school career, but is now in a position to benefit from the wonderful Kalamazoo Promise that provides Kalamazoo, other school graduates with tuition and fees at any public state college or university here in Michigan.

MARTIN: If they get through and if they're academically eligible and if they're admitted, then they can attend any public college in the state, right?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes, any college or university.

MARTIN: And how is that paid for?

Mr. WASHINGTON: They are anonymous donors, and to this day are still anonymous. Anonymous donors came together approximately five years ago and started what was called the Kalamazoo Promise. And students have been benefitting from it since. And that just has removed an extremely large barrier for so many students here that this is something that definitely we take a great deal of pride in.

MARTIN: What do you think it is that attracted the White House to your message? Do you have any clue about what it is that took your submission over the top?

Mr. WASHINGTON: We have no insight to what they thought it was at this particular time, it just speaks to the video, the passion in the video, I would hope, and that's what has compelled most of the alumni and people that are responding through email with congratulations is that it was such a heartfelt, emotional video.

We're being told that some people even have tears. We also believe that the Kalamazoo Promise, opportunity that is offered to our students here was just immense. And that those two things together make Kalamazoo Central somewhat of a model for education. And we're just excited about that.

MARTIN: One of the other things that you highlighted in the video is the diversity of your student population. And you also have a little less than half of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. With all of those factors you still have a very strong track record of sending kids to college. So, again, I'm sure you're still experiencing that glow. When is graduation? I wasn't angling for a ticket, by the way, I was just wondering when it's coming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WASHINGTON: It is typically it's been in the second week of June. Because of the announcement, there are some factors that need to be considered. So our district is working closely with the White House to see what that actual date and time is going to be at this particular...

MARTIN: Sure. And what message do you hope the president will bring to the seniors and to your entire community?

Mr. WASHINGTON: You know, the platform that he ran on was hope and change and that to do that you have to take chances. You have to believe in what you are doing. And that he will applaud the students for taking this chance. They entered into this competition with every school in the nation that decided that they wanted to be a part of this competition. And we're being told it was well over a thousand schools that submitted applications.

And that if you believe in what you are doing and have an opportunity to come together, because this has united a student body and a community in unbelievable ways, that there are opportunities to have your voice heard and to be able to make change. And we hope that that's kind of the message that maybe they'll get.

MARTIN: Well, what on earth are you going to do for an encore next year?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WASHINGTON: We just want to continue to graduate students who are able to go out into society. We're going to do what we do every single day. A number of things are taking place in schools across America every day, wonderful, wonderful acts are taking place. And we want to continue to do that, that'd be our priority number one.

MARTIN: Von Washington is the principal of Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The school is the winner of the 2010 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, which means that they won the right to have President Obama come and present their commencement address.

And Principal Washington joined us on the phone from his office. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations once again.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Thank you very much.

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