Friday, May 6, 2011

School in rural Wash. town vies for Obama speech

BRIDGEPORT, Wash. (AP) -- This rural farm town tucked amid Washington's apple and cherry orchards seems an unlikely stop for a U.S. president.

Yet Bridgeport High School is one of three national finalists for a commencement address by President Barack Obama, thanks to an on-time graduation rate that exceeds the national average and a college push that beats some of the ritziest public schools.

All 37 seniors will graduate next month. All are headed to college or to a technical school. And the possibility of a presidential visit has them and their whole town buzzing.

"I will have a heart attack if he comes," Rosendo Rodriguez, 17, who plans to study to be an electrician, said with wide eyes and a grin.

Said Ana Maria Gomeros, whose daughter Elizabeth will be the first in the family to attend college: "I hope to God he will come to Bridgeport."

In its second year, Obama's Race to the Top Commencement Challenge invites public high schools across the country to demonstrate how they prepare students for college and a career. Their reward: a presidential speech at graduation.

Schools that made it to the semi-final rounds were asked to submit videos, which were subject to online voting. Three schools were notified that they made it to the finals.

The other two finalists this year are High Tech High International in San Diego, a public charter school that focuses on math, science and technology and boasts a 100 percent graduation rate; and Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn., the first school to educate black students in that area. The latter endures high poverty and teen pregnancy rates but has shown a roughly 20 percent improvement in its graduation rate in the past year.

The winner will be announced Monday. Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan won the inaugural challenge last year.

None of these schools share the demographics of Bridgeport, a tiny town of 2,400 about 120 miles east of Seattle on the banks of the Columbia River.

Settled years ago by wheat and fruit growers and cattle ranchers, the town now has a decidedly Latino feel thanks to the migrant workers who eventually settled here.

Pinatas hang from the ceiling in the market. A taco truck and Mexican restaurant compete with the local tavern. Brightly painted buildings line the short main street through the town of modest homes and trailers.

Principal Tamra Jackson, who moved here 25 years ago for her first teaching job, has watched the community change. Back then, 90 percent of the students were white and 10 percent were Hispanic. Today, that figure is reversed.

Nearly the entire student body qualifies for free or reduced breakfast and lunch. The demographic shift and increasing poverty level pointed to a need for changes in the classroom, Jackson said.

"Some are the first in their families to make it to high school, let alone finish. Many are the only person speaking English at home," she said. "We just could not assume they would leave our doors and go to college."

In 2003, the school began a push to offer courses for college credit. Teachers got additional degrees and certification to teach college courses, and mentors began tracking the progress of each student.

The school now offers 16 classes for college credit, more than some of the largest urban high schools. Half of all students have taken at least one such class.

The workload for teachers is high, but necessary for the students to improve, said Michael Selle, who currently teaches history, statistics and trigonometry classes.

"We don't gear these classes to getting kids to pass them. We encourage them to take them, because our real interest is in seeing them pursue challenging subjects and prepare themselves for the rigors of college," he said.

The students themselves point to the results. Nadia Gonzalez wants to be a broadcaster. Norma Camacho plans to study nursing. Ana Soto is aiming for a biology degree to be a doctor.

Jackson, who has decorated her office with college banners as inspiration, received another from a former student now in her first year at Boston University.

State officials say Bridgeport deserves the national attention it's getting because of the unique and thoughtful way the school's principal and teachers have worked to turn it around.

"The reason they are as exceptional as they are is that they hold unbelievably high standards for all their students," said Dan Newell, assistant state superintendent for secondary education and school improvement.

But the recognition comes with a price. With immigration a heated topic likely to get even hotter as the 2012 election approaches, students have found themselves the target of some less-than-supportive comments online.

"I saw one comment where someone said, 'Instead of sending President Obama, they should be sending ICE - immigration," said 18-year-old Paige Rodriguez. "It's hard to see, but our teachers have told us we're doing an amazing job and to focus on the positive."

The comments devastated some students, Jackson said, even as they provided another life lesson.

"That people are making it personal or political does not detract from the fact that the highest office in the land is recognizing these kids' accomplishments," she said.

Elizabeth Gomeros, 18, said she and many of her peers have worked in the fruit packing sheds and won't be dissuaded from pursuing better work.

Her own parents moved to Bridgeport in 1990 from Tepic, Mexico, to work in the packing sheds. It's hard, long work - up to 12 hours a day during the cherry season. A back injury forced her mother home, and the family now struggles on only her father's salary.

Minorities here work in the packing sheds and at McDonalds, her mother said, but she wants to see her daughter at a hospital or bank instead.

"I want her to have everything," Ana Maria Gomeros said in Spanish as her daughter translated.

"And I hope you won't let us down," she said, smiling at Elizabeth. "Because we came from Mexico in search of a better future."


Associated Press writer Donna Gordon Blankinship contributed to this story from Seattle.

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