Obama addresses Michigan high school graduation

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

KALAMAZOO, MICH. -- In an unusual presidential speech to high school graduates Monday night, President Obama urged students to persevere in their goals and "take responsibility not just for your successes, [but] take responsibility where you fall short as well."

Typically, presidents address college graduates at this time of year. But Obama chose to address more than 280 graduates of Kalamazoo Central High School, in southwestern Michigan, in a bid to build his brand for education reform: Race to the Top.

The school beat out more than 1,000 others that sought to have Obama to speak at their graduations. Obama chose it over two other finalists that submitted videos and essays for their pitch.

Kalamazoo Central serves a city with large numbers of families in poverty. Many of the 1,700 students are taking college-level Advanced Placement classes. They also benefit from private donors who, through the "Kalamazoo Promise," guarantee scholarships for graduates who go to public colleges in Michigan. That arrangement has buoyed enrollment and college attendance rates.

Obama praised the students for their zeal to attend college and the city for doing its part.

"I'm here tonight because I think that America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes for a successful school in this new century," Obama told the graduates in the 24-minute speech. "You've got educators raising standards and then inspiring their students to meet them. You've got community members stepping up as tutors and mentors and coaches. You've got parents taking an active interest in their kids' education -- attending those teacher conferences, turning off that TV once in a while, making sure that homework gets done."

Obama also offered advice that politicians often fail to heed: Don't fall into the trap of making excuses.

"This is an easy habit to get into. You see it every day in Washington. Every day," he told the grads in white-and-maroon caps and gowns, seated in Western Michigan University's basketball arena.

He then added: "The truth is, no matter how hard you work, you're not going to ace every class. You're not going to succeed the first time you try something or succeed in every job. There will be times when you screw up, there'll be times when you hurt the people you love."

Before the ceremonies, Obama surprised the soon-to-be grads with an unexpected early stop by the arena. They whooped and took snapshots with cellphone cameras as he stoked their ambitions, saying, "I might just be warming up a seat for you."

The trip to Kalamazoo came through what Obama called the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, a spinoff from the $4 billion Race to the Top program.

That federal grant program offers incentives for states to overhaul teacher evaluation, to move toward performance pay, to adopt common academic standards and to take other steps aligned with Obama's goals. Some critics say that, through the grants, Obama is meddling too much in local education affairs. But the commencement contest generated positive buzz, and the White House said it drew more than 170,000 votes.

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