Back in February, President Obama put out a challenge to graduating seniors all over the country: Prove that you did the best job meeting his Race to the Top challenge and he would deliver the commencement address at your high school.
"Public schools that encourage systemic reform and embrace effective approaches to teaching and learning help prepare America's students to graduate ready for college and a career and enable them to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world," the president said in a video message. "This is your opportunity to show me why your school exemplifies the best that our education system has to offer." Education Secretary Arne Duncan added that the Race to the Top challenge was a chance for the nation's schools to share their accomplishments and aspirations and for teachers, students and principals to show how they are putting education first.
The key to the challenge was a four-question essay in which each school was asked to demonstrate how they were helping prepare students to meet the president's goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
More than 1,000 schools submitted applications for the honor, with the White House Domestic Policy Council and Department of Education narrowing the list of finalists down to six high schools. Then the hard work really began, as each school encouraged supporters to weigh in to help them get into the winner's circle. According to the White House, between April 26 and 29, over 170,000 short videos and essays were received from the six finalist schools, with President Obama selecting the national winner from the three high schools with the highest average ratings.
The finalists included Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas; Clark Montessori in Cincinnati; Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver; Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, California; Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan; and MAST Academy in Miami. Kalamazoo Central's "We Are the Giants" video ultimately came out on top.
Backed by a community looking to rise above its economic challenges, the diverse student body of Kalamazoo Central showed that the Giants take preparing for college and a career seriously. Nearly 94 percent of Central's seniors are headed to college, and for those efforts, they got to meet the president himself, first as a group when the seniors joined him in an intimate gathering before their commencement ceremony on Monday.
"It was the most amazing thing ever that could ever happen to anybody," one particularly enthusiastic student gushed, while another classmate chimed in, "That moment right there changed my life, just meeting the president."
And again on the graduation stage, when each student shook President Obama's hand after he delivered his first-ever high school commencement address, as promised. In the speech, he lauded Kalamazoo Central's students for their hard work, dedication and ingenuity and called the school a model for success in the 21st century.
"It gives me great confidence to know that we've got such incredible young leaders that are going to be remaking the world in so many ways," Obama said. "I'm here tonight because I think America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes a successful school in this new century."
Get Schooled is a national program aimed at increasing high school and college graduation rates and promoting the importance of education, developed by Viacom in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.