Monday, June 7, 2010

The Race to the Top

In a world full of unsettling and fast-paced change and uncertainty, one particularly bright light shined through last night: the 2010 graduating class of Kalamazoo Central High School.

KCHS won the President’s Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. The prize: having President Barack Obama speak at their graduation ceremonies.

The Challenge involved more than 1,000 high schools that submitted a case for their commitment to academic excellence and their success in graduating students prepared for college or a career. Included was a three-minute video.

KCHS submitted “We are the Giants,” a rhythmic rendition of what it means to be a student at the school.

Part of the reason for the school’s selection is that since 2006, 1,516 students have gone to college despite the fact that it is a public urban high school of 1700 students with a high poverty rate (57 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) and a high diversity rate (51 percent African American, 39 percent Caucasian, 7 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian American, 1 percent Native American). In fact, in the video students claimed these circumstances to be their strength and the evidence is clear.

Compared to two years ago, more students are taking Advanced Placement courses.

Students are more involved than ever in service learning projects.

This year the KCHS boys’ basketball team won the state Class A basketball championship for the first time in 59 years.

The mock trial team placed second in the state mock trial competition (and is a winner of 17 state championships).

The band received a silver medal at a national competition in Orlando, Florida.

The KCHS graduation rate is now 80 percent.

Key to these achievements is an innovative program called the Kalamazoo Promise that provides a full-tuition scholarship for eligible students to attend a Michigan college, university or community college of their choice.

The Kalamazoo Promise was created in November 2005 by an anonymous group of donors who believed that the foundation of economic development is education and then put up the money to try to make that happen.

KCHS students have responded in kind by taking advantage of this unique opportunity afforded them through hard work and study. Some are even the first generation in their family to be college-educated.

I’m sure the president’s committee that selected KCHS took note of “the Promise” as an example of the kind of support well-endowed citizens in communities across the United States can give to youth, especially at this time when states must make drastic cuts in their educational programs and budgets.

However, I’m sure the committee noticed something else about KCHS and it was evident at last night’s commencement.

The students displayed an unusual energy and excitement. Of course, they were in the company of the President of the United States who not only praised them for their achievements, but shook each of the nearly 300 students’ hands. Some students even hugged Obama who warmly received them.

But beyond their youthful exuberance, the students displayed a dignified behavior with their heads held up high. And rather than be stymied, fearful or overwhelmed with the difficult world they are about to enter, they seemed ready and willing to address its challenges.

Adults today are too quick to deny the world’s problems, make excuses for their inaction, and distract themselves from taking steps toward more deliberate solutions.

The KCHS students did not seem to shirk from responsibility but rather to take it on as they prepare themselves to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, businesspeople, scientists, trades people, engineers, farmers, political leaders as well as parents and citizens in our communities.

Curiously, I am finding this fearless attitude in other youth as well.

The young people of this country are ready to lead. Let the rest of us be inspired and follow them!

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