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White House

Obama Gives Commencement Speech at High School That Won White House Contest

At inner-city school in Tennessee, the president uses the occasion to discuss his mother's premium on education.


President Obama talked about the importance of education in his own life at a commencement address at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn.(Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

President Obama Delivers Commencement Address at Booker T. Washington High School 5/16/11

Drawing on his own experiences as the child of a single mother, President Obama delivered a commencement address on Monday at a Tennessee high school that has been singled out by the White House for its performance. 


The graduation rate at Booker T. Washington High School in South Memphis jumped to 80 percent this year, up from 55 percent four years ago. Some 70 percent of students plan to continue their education after college. For their efforts, they were the winners of the 2011 Commencement Challenge, a joint effort of the White House, media giant Viacom, and the Get Schooled Foundation. Schools entered the competition, promoting their efforts to help students prepare for college and employment. The winner got the president as a graduation speaker.

Obama told the students that their urban high school "is a place that has proven why we can’t accept any excuses when it comes to education; that in the United States of America, we should never accept anything less than the best our children have to offer."

He noted that Tennessee was one of the first winners of a grant from the administration's Race to the Top initiative, which rewards schools for major reforms that result in improvement.


Education reform is expected be a major part of Obama’s reelection platform, and he offered a rare moment of personal insight about why the issue moves him so deeply.

“I’m standing here as president because of the education I received.  My father left my family when I was 2 years old, and I was raised by a single mom who struggled at times to provide for me and my sister. But my mother and my grandparents pushed me to excel in school. And they kept pushing me, especially on those rare occasions where I’d slack off or get into trouble. I’m sure no one here’s ever done something like that,” he said. “I’m lucky they kept pushing. I’m lucky my teachers kept pushing. Because education made all the difference in my life.”

With scholarship assistance, Obama attended the Punahou School, one of Hawaii's top private institutions. 

He said that Michelle Obama also had parents who put a premium on education. The first lady attended Chicago public schools before enrolling at Princeton University and Harvard Law School.


The president clearly identified with and admired the students’ challenges, which seemed to reflect his own upbringing.

“Nobody has handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your lives, you’ll have earned it. Whatever rewards and joys you reap, you’ll appreciate them that much more because they will have come through your own sweat and tears -- products of your efforts and talents.” 

Before his speech, Obama spent about 35 minutes meeting with flood victims, first responders, volunteers, and local elected officials dealing with the flooding in the region. “We’re there for you," the president said, "and we’re grateful for your resilience."

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