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First lady Michelle Obama gives Anacostia high school commencement speech

The first lady delivers the commencement address for the Anacostia High Class of 2010 at DAR Constitution Hall.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010

First lady Michelle Obama has given commencement addresses before, but none carried the resonance of her speech Friday morning to the Class of 2010 from the Academies at Anacostia.

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From the moment she settled into the East Wing of the White House, Obama has talked about building a bridge between rich and poor, privileged and needy, insiders and outsiders. The simple decision to speak to the Anacostia high school's 158 graduates -- some of whom cleared the daunting hurdles of extreme poverty or teenage pregnancy in order to wear the school's cobalt-blue cap and gown -- made those idealistic visions a little more real.

"Maybe you feel like your destiny was written the day you were born, and you ought to just rein in your hopes and scale back your dreams. But if any of you are thinking that way, I'm here to tell you, stop it. Don't do that," Obama said. "Don't ever scale back your dreams. And don't ever set limits on what you can achieve. And don't think for one single moment that your destiny is out of your hands, because no one's in control of your destiny but you."

Each of the students had already overcome at least one obstacle to their dreams: their own school. It has been struggling to shed its reputation as one of the worst schools in the city -- one wrestling with poor test scores, spotty attendance, dismal graduation rates and violence. In 2009, only about 50 percent of students graduated. Only 17 percent of the students were proficient in math and 18 percent in reading.

In September, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee transferred management of Anacostia High School to Friendship Public Charter Schools in the hopes that the nonprofit group would do what the city could not. The school, renamed in the transfer, was wholly restructured, divided into four academies and given a staff overhaul. This year, 79 percent of the students received their diplomas. And of those, 95 percent were accepted to college, a charter school spokesman said.

"The kids at Anacostia deserve such a great honor," said Jacqueline Smallwood, 31, seeing her sister graduate. "So often, they get the short end of the stick. This time, they're on the other side."

Smallwood's younger sister, LaPrelle Ballinger, 18, is the last of five siblings to attend high school but the first to graduate. "It's something my mom wanted for all of us. She's the one fulfilling the dream."

Ballinger is a teen mom, Smallwood added, "so it's been doubly hard, double everything for her."

The journey to this day has not been easy for many of these students -- or for the city. When D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was mentioned at the lectern -- he was not present -- the audience launched into a round of boos that even the first lady's presence did not quell.

And some of the graduates needed an extended family's help to make it to graduation.

"We have struggled, trying to get her to graduate," said Karen Starks, referring to her granddaughter Starquasha Spears, 17. "She just went through that too-grown stage. She thought she could outsmart the teachers."

There were arguments and pleas, transfers to multiple schools in the hopes of getting Spears away from negative influences and, in between it all, the birth of Spears's son.


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