obama-kalamazoo-commencement.jpgKalamazoo Central High School beat out more than 1,000 applicants to win the “Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge” and the honor of having President Obama deliver the school’s graduation speech, which took place on Monday night.

As an urban school in Michigan, K-Central had big gaps in their graduation rates. Crime-related stories seemed to grab as many headlines as those about learning achievements and sports victories.

But in recent years, the academic improvement in Kalamazoo has been dramatic. For one thing, since 2006, 91 percent of K-Central graduates have gone to college for at least one semester. Key to that achievement has been an innovative program called the Kalamazoo Promise, which pledges scholarship money to graduating students from anonymous donors. The number of students at K-Central taking Advanced Placement courses sky-rocketed, with triple-digit increases among minority students

This spring, the president himself pickied K-Central to win the School Commencement Challenge from among six finalists, which included two magnet schools, two charter schools, and a suburban public school.

In the winning video, senior Cara Cunliffe said, “We accept any student at K-Central, whether they’re right out of jail, have a low income. It doesn’t matter. The other schools in the competition accept minorities, but they don’t accept everyone like K-Central does.”

(READ more about the winning school and Kalamazoo’s Promise in this story from the CS Monitor)

President Obama told the graduating seniors: “Understand that your success in life won’t be determined just by what’s given to you, or what happens to you, but by what you do with all that’s given to you; what you do with all that happens to you; how hard you try; how far you push yourself; how high you’re willing to reach.  True excellence only comes with perseverance.”

“This wasn’t something I really understood when I was back your age,” he continued. “As my mother put it, I had a tendency sometimes to act a bit casual about my future. Sometimes I was rebellious.  Sometimes I partied a little too much.”

“But after a few years, after I was living solely on my own and I realized that living solely for my own entertainment wasn’t so entertaining anymore, that it wasn’t particularly satisfying anymore, that I didn’t seem to be making much of a ripple in the world, I started to change my tune.  I realized that by refusing to apply myself, there was nothing I could point to that I was proud of that would last. “

“Meaningful achievement, lasting success — it doesn’t happen in an instant. It’s usually about daily effort, the large choices and the small choices that you make that add up over time.”

“So, today, you all have a rare and valuable chance to pursue your own passions, chase your own dreams without incurring a mountain of debt. What an incredible gift. So you’ve got no excuse for giving anything less than your best effort… That’s my second piece of advice, very simple:  Don’t make excuses.  Take responsibility not just for your successes; take responsibility where you fall short as well.”

Kelsey Socha wrote in an essay, My Graduation Day with President Obama, on the White House Blog, “President Obama surprised us and arrived in our holding room a few hours before schedule, it was surreal, not only for the chance to hear the President speak but to have him mere inches away from us in a private setting. It was more than anyone could have dreamed of.”

“The honor went far beyond the President simply coming to our graduation or even shaking our hands. It was the fact that he made the experience wholly about us, using no political campaigns or agendas, that made it a truly special ceremony.

(WATCH the video of Obama’s speech to graduates, or READ the inspiring speech here)

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