BRIDGEPORT — While the rest of the staff and students at Bridgeport High School soaked in their last days of spring break, Principal Tamra Jackson took a call at her desk Thursday, from the White House.
“First congratulations, I want to let you guys know that you’ve been selected as one of the top six finalists for this year’s commencement challenge,” a White House spokesman told her. If the school wins the contest, President Barack Obama will deliver the commencement speech for Bridgeport’s Class of 2011.
“Actually, I have to say my head is kind of spinning,” Jackson answered over speaker phone. “I’m so excited and I’m excited for the kids.”
But don’t tell anyone! Before they hung up the phone, the staffers asked her to keep the news under wraps until 10 a.m. Friday, when the White House made its official announcement, she said.
“It was so difficult to keep it secret for 24 hours,” she said. “I wanted to share it with everyone. I was so excited.”
She called the superintendent, some teachers and a few school board members to her office Friday morning. She couldn’t say why. Just watch, she said.
When the announcement went live, they celebrated with high-fives and “Whoo-hoo, we did it!“ Jackson recalled.
The Commencement Challenge was created last year for schools that can demonstrate their commitment to preparing students for college and a career.
Jackson received a letter from the White House earlier in the week that thanked the school for applying. It said there were hundreds of great applicants, the decision was difficult, and so on. She thought it was a rejection letter.
“This is so cool for Bridgeport,” she said. “Often times we feel like a little overlooked because we’re small and remote. It’s quite an honor to be recognized. We’re just riding this high right now, like pinch me, is this real?”
The students are on spring break, but Jackson’s betting most will find out through the grapevine by Monday.
The next round of the contest starts Tuesday. Two producers from MTV will fly in to mentor a select group of students on how to create a winning video, Jackson said. The students have 10 hours to shoot footage Wednesday. The next day they edit.
The White House will post the six videos on their website, along with essays written by the principals. The schools are competing for the most online votes April 21 to May 2.
The three videos with the most votes go to the president’s desk, where Obama himself will decide the winner.
Bridgeport is the high school version of a Cinderella story.
The students are about 90 percent Hispanic, predominantly poor and learned English as a second language. Many students are the first of their family to finish high school, let alone pursue a degree.
It’s a 90-minute commute to the nearest college.
Of the 205 students, 98 are taking Advanced Placement or College in the High School classes. Students have 11 classes to choose from to earn college credit, which is rare for a small, rural school.
The College in High School program began eight years ago with a partnership between Bridgeport School District and Wenatchee Valley College. If students pass the entrance exam and the class, they earn five free college credits per class every semester.
In Advanced Placement classes, students earn college credit if they pass a final exam.
More than 80 percent of the Class of 2011 will move on to higher education, Jackson said.
“We have a real college-bound culture here,” she said. “Everybody wants to be in these classes.”
Rachel Schleif: 664-7139