An abundance of praise from the White House on Tuesday morning tipped off Bridgeport High School students that President Barack Obama would not be coming for graduation.
The tiny school in north-central Washington was one of three finalists in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, which comes with a grand prize of having Obama give the school’s commencement speech. Instead, the president will go to Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn.
“When we first heard our principal get the call, we were excited and nervous,” said Carina Ochoa, a Bridgeport senior. “As the phone call went on, they were a little too complimentary, so we knew we didn’t win.” Nevertheless, she said, “We’re proud we made it this far, and our school is on the map.”
Because the school was a finalist, a member of the president’s Cabinet will speak at commencement, but the White House hasn’t announced who that will be, said Principal Tamra Jackson.
“Even though we didn’t win, it’s still exciting to know that someone of high respect is coming,” Ochoa said.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has told Jackson she also plans to attend the graduation.
Bridgeport High School has a student population of about 180. Nearly 90 percent are Hispanic and 100 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced meals, officials said. Many of the students are first-generation high school students yet more than 80 percent go on to college.
White House officials didn’t say why Bridgeport wasn’t chosen.
Some students reacted with tears and disappointment, but “they handled themselves pretty well,” Jackson said. “I had talked to them extensively. Win or take second place with grace, they needed to hold it together.”
Added Jackson: “I keep telling the kids, they have nothing to hold their heads down about.”
Jackson, who was an English teacher at the high school for 25 years before becoming principal two years ago, entered the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge last year, too.
“I am sure we will try again next year,” Jackson said. “It’s a great experience for the kids to get involved, learn about their community and the school.”