How Do You Get Michelle Obama to be Your Graduation Speaker? | Teachers College Columbia University

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How Do You Get Michelle Obama to be Your Graduation Speaker?

TC alumnus James A. "Mitch" Mitchell, whose resume includes high-level education posts in two presidential administrations, managed to have the First Lady deliver the commencement address at his Washington, D.C., charter school by tapping his old contacts and one particularly eloquent student.
TC alumnus James A. "Mitch" Mitchell was only half serious when he suggested Michelle Obama as a possible commencement speaker for the public charter high school in Washington, D.C., where he is President of the Board of Trustees. Still, having held high-level education jobs in Washington during both the Clinton and the first Bush administrations, Mitchell, who now manages business development in the education division of Casio America, Inc., knew people who just might make it happen.

"I sent messages out to folks who I knew were still in place, and asked them to reach out to her office," says Mitchell, who received a master’s degree in computing and education from TC in 1988 and has completed his coursework for a doctorate in the Communication, Computing and Technology in Education Program.

The clincher, however, was not an inside-the-Beltway favor swap, but a letter to Michelle Obama from Jasmine Williams, a graduating senior at the school. "My classmates and I would feel the greatest honor and appreciation if either President Barack Obama or First Lady Michelle Obama could be the guest speaker at our graduation," Williams wrote. "Where we come from, being a young minority means that we have little chance to succeed. The world already has a pre-determined thought that our generation is full of criminals and concubines. Although this may be true about some of the people of our generation, there are still a lot of us that live above the influence and strive to be our best."

Michelle Obama's address to the graduating class of the Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School on June 3 was a moment of pride for Mitchell. He is devoted to Math Science Tech, one of 10 original charter schools created in the District in 1998. More than a third of Washington’s public school students attend independently managed public schools open to all students in the district, regardless of their neighborhood or academic record.

President Obama wants to expand the federal government's commitment to successful charter schools. His education secretary, Arne Duncan, has said that federal stimulus dollars would bypass states that are not committed to innovations such as charter schools. Both have drawn fire from critics, mostly teachers unions, who argue that charter schools skim the best students and scarce public funds from schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Experienced in bipartisanship, Mitchell notes that, although it is located in middle-class northeast Washington, most of Math Science Tech's 369 students come from the more economically disadvantaged southeast end. "We take whoever comes through our door until we’re full," he says.

The school's open admissions policy has not held it back. It was named a distinguished school by and BusinessWeek magazine in 2008. Last February, the D.C. Public Charter School Board cited the school for high performance, including high attendance rates; rigorous math, science and technology programs; numerous advanced placement courses; and a 99.9 percent college acceptance rate. This year's 98 graduates have received a total of $3.1 million in college scholarships, and every graduating student has received at least two college acceptance letters, according to Audrey Williams, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.

Even with those accolades, Mitchell was "shocked" when Michelle Obama's office called on April 1 to say that she would be at commencement. "I thought they were playing a joke," he recalls.

Obama told reporters she accepted because she "wanted to celebrate the achievements of young people in my own hometown." She advised the graduates to "ignore the doubters" who thought they wouldn't be successful, and she assured them they were "more than ready" to accept the challenges ahead of them. Mitchell said he has never doubted that, but being instrumental in getting the young graduates to hear it from a role model like the First Lady was sweet success indeed.

Published Thursday, Jun. 11, 2009