Obama Speaks At Memphis High School Graduation - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Obama Speaks At Memphis High School Graduation

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President Barack Obama greets graduates, some overcome with emotion, before he delivers the commencement address at the Booker T. Washington High School graduation at Cook Convention Center in Memphis, Tenn. , Monday, May 16, 2011. (AP Photo) President Barack Obama greets graduates, some overcome with emotion, before he delivers the commencement address at the Booker T. Washington High School graduation at Cook Convention Center in Memphis, Tenn. , Monday, May 16, 2011. (AP Photo)
Obama greets Booker T. Washington Students Cassandra Henderson and Christopher Dean after stepping off Air Force One In Memphis. (AP Photo) Obama greets Booker T. Washington Students Cassandra Henderson and Christopher Dean after stepping off Air Force One In Memphis. (AP Photo)
President Barack Obama speaks with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. ; Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. (AP Photo) President Barack Obama speaks with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. ; Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. (AP Photo)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – President Barack Obama arrived in Memphis on Monday morning to meet with flood victims and speak to the 2011 graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School.

Senator Bob Corker accompanied President Obama on his flight aboard Air Force One from Washington. They were greeted by Governor Bill Haslam, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Senator Lamar Alexander, U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton along with Booker T. Washington Seniors Cassandra Henderson and Christopher Dean.

Dean and Henderson were with President Obama for a surprise drop-in chat with the senior class before the ceremony. The students did not know he would join them before commencement, and erupted into cheers, and some sobs, when Obama walked out smiling.

Obama gave a small pep talk telling the students that they have shown determination, character and a willingness to work hard and "steer clear of folks who were trying to send you down the wrong path."

He told them they are an inspiration to their city, the state of Tennessee, the country, and to him.

One girl was crying, and Obama gave her a reassuring, sympathetic look, leaned down and put his hand on her neck to comfort her.

Booker T. Washington High School was selected as the winner of this year's White House Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge.

Student Christopher Dean was the voice of the video for the contest. He introduced President Obama by saying what the President meant to him, and even joked that we all knew where the President was born.

President Obama began by saying that he had met Principal Kiner, whose daughter goes to a different high school because she worried the boys wouldn't talk to her if her mother was around.

"This is why my next job will be principal at Sasha and Malia's high school.  And then president of their college," President Obama joked.

"We are here today because every single one of you stood up and said, ‘Yes we can.'  Yes we can learn.  Yes we can succeed," Obama told the students. "You decided that you weren't going to be defined by where you came from, but by where you want to go – by what you want to achieve, by the dreams you hope to fulfill. "

Obama told the students that only a couple of years ago, only about half of the students at Booker T. Washington graduated, and only a handful went to college. But they created special academies for ninth graders, added AP classes, competitions, and created a new curriculum and a new culture.

"Because you created this culture of caring and learning, today we are standing in a very different Booker T. Washington High.  Today, this is a place where more than four out of five students are earning a diploma – a place where 70 percent of the graduates will continue their education; where many will be the very first in their families to go to college," Obama said.

He said that these students from a high school in a tough South Memphis neighborhood prove that no excuses should be accepted when it comes to education.

"If success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis.  It can happen throughout Tennessee.  And it can happen all across America," President Obama said.

He said Tennessee has been a leader in progress in education, by becoming one of the first winners of the "Race To the Top".

The President spoke about his upbringing, saying his father left his family when he was two-years-old and he was raised by a single mother. But she and his grandparents pushed him to work hard and get his education.

"I'm lucky they kept pushing.  I'm lucky my teachers kept pushing.  Because education made all the difference in my life," President Obama said.  "And it's going to make an even greater difference in your lives – not just for your own success, but for our country's success." 

Obama said the school has been a leader in showing that education reform can't just be led by Washington; he said it depends on teachers, principals, and entire communities demanding a better future for their children. And he said the students at Booker T. Washington will appreciate their accomplishments more because they have earned them.

"The truth is, not a single one of the graduates here today has had it easy.  Not a single one of you were handed anything on a silver platter.  You had to work for it.  You had to earn it.  But most of all, you had to believe in yourselves," Obama said.

"So, Class of 2011, the hard road doesn't end here; your journeys have just begun.  And your diploma isn't a free pass – it can't protect you against every setback or challenge or mistake.  You've got to keep working hard," Obama finished. "You've got to keep pushing yourselves.  But if you do, I am confident about your futures.  I am hopeful and excited about all that you can achieve.  And I know that, armed with the skills and experiences you've gained at Booker T. Washington High School, you are ready to make your mark on the world."

Obama then shook the hand of every graduating senior as they walked across the stage to accept their diplomas.

After implementing educational innovations and adding variety to its curriculum, the school saw its graduation rate jump from 55 percent in 2007 to nearly 82 percent in 2010. Changes at the school include separate freshmen academies for boys and girls and a greater choice of advanced placement classes.

The school was selected before high waters struck at some of the most poverty stricken communities along the Mississippi. The river crested at Memphis last week, just inches short of the record set in 1937. Some low-lying neighborhoods were inundated, but the city's high levees protected much of the rest of Memphis.

Before the speech, Obama met privately with families and local officials and emergency personnel forced to confront the highest waters since 1937.  En route to the Cook Convention Center, Obama's motorcade went by the river, where the water was high but contained.

He met with Nanny Williams, her daughter Shandane Mull and her granddaughter Shaquilla Mull. Nanny's home was recently flooded out, and she is currently unemployed. Shandane and Shaquilla had recently come to live with her before the flooding forced them out. Nanny has become a matriachal figure in the Millington community shelter. Shandane drives a Memphis City School Bus for a living.

He also met with Rose Hunt and her son Ricky. Floodwater surrounded Rose's home and damaged her property, but did not reach her house. Ricky lived nearby, and his home was completely flooded out. Ricky is now staying with Rose who believes her house was spared so Ricky would have a place to go.

He also met with several first responders and volunteers.

The river is now aiming at the Mississippi Delta, forcing officials to open a Louisiana spillway and flooding Cajun country to protects the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Floodwaters along the Mississippi and its backed-up tributaries have already washed away crops and forced many people to flee to higher ground.

(The Associated Press Contributed To This Report.)

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