The high school choice that Michelle Obama made

Jon East

Michelle-ObamaPresident Obama may need a dose of his wife’s popularity at the moment, but don’t discount the importance of her visit to some fortunate sophomores at Bell Multicultural High School in D.C. on Tuesday. This is a first lady from a tough part of Chicago who beat the odds to Princeton University, to Harvard Law School, and to corporate executive offices. And her high school choice, to which she spoke, is worth underscoring.

“Even though my parents didn’t have a lot of money, they never went to college themselves, they had an unwavering belief in the power of education,” Mrs. Obama told the students. “… So when it came time for me to go to high school, they encouraged me to enroll in one of the best schools in Chicago. … My school was way across the other side of the city from where I lived. So at 6 a.m. every morning, I had to get on a city bus and ride for an hour, sometimes more, just to get to school. And I was willing to do that because I was willing to do whatever it took for me to go to college.”

The school was Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, opened in 1975 as Chicago’s first public magnet school.  It was ranked this year by Newsweek as fifth-best high school in the Midwest. A fourth of the students are black, two-thirds are minority, and just under 4-in-10 are on free or reduced-price lunch. The academics speak to excellence: 82 percent of students take Advanced Placement classes with an 80 percent pass rate; the average ACT score last year was 27.1, with four students scoring a perfect 36; every single one of its 2012 graduates was accepted into a four-year college.

While much has been made about the private school choice the Obamas made for their daughters in D.C., Mrs. Obama’s own choice for high school is at least as relevant. She wanted a different future for herself at a time when she says some of her own teachers were telling her that Princeton was an unrealistic dream. So she chose a public school outside her neighborhood that she saw as worth the hour bus ride each way. This was the late 1970s, don’t forget, at a time when children in American public education had precious few options. But Michelle Obama found one, and it worked for her.

Forget the political backdrop here. Her message, particularly to students of color, is compelling.

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4 comments

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Bruce William Smith November 19, 2013 - 4:58 pm

Her message should be compelling to students of all colours, and her choice should be available to as many students as possible. Unfortunately, some of us live in closed-minded, parochial, self-satisfied districts that lack incentive to provide their citizens with better choices, or any meaningful choice at all; they appear to be so blinkered by concerns for equity that diversity of provision is squeezed out altogether, as if we were living in the Soviet Union.

This may seem to be an odd comment to make about Irvine, California, in the heart of an increasingly conservative part of Orange County, home of Richard Nixon; but my family is in a district with invisible walls, and if we might like to follow Mrs. Obama’s path and send our eighth-grader to a top-ranked high school in another part of greater Los Angeles — say, Whitney High School, in Cerritos — there are numerous little districts between here and there, each exclusively the domain of its local taxpayers, and all needlessly cut off from a bigger world that is steadily intruding past those flimsy white picket fences behind which the narrow mindsets of a shrinking class relive their memories from a receding past.

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Tom Quimby December 3, 2013 - 9:42 pm

Great post, Bruce. I’m a fifth generation Californian, and at times I miss San Diego for all its great weather, attractions, etc. But I don’t miss the narrow mindsets. We moved to Florida nearly 14 years ago, and though the state has its own unique set of political challenges, it certainly has hit a bulls eye when it comes to school choice. Our kids are enrolled in a private school thanks in large part to the state’s Step-up for Students school choice program. They’re getting a classical, Christian education with class sizes that hardly exceed a dozen students. They love their school, and we certainly appreciate it, too.

I might be the only Southern Cal graduate around here (SC football games are more of a curiosity around here), but the move to Florida has definitely been worth it. Best of luck to you and yours.

Ron Matus
Ron Matus December 4, 2013 - 10:30 am

Hi Bruce, Hi Tom. Thank you both for reading our blog and making some thoughtful comments. Tom, we’re proud of Florida for being on the leading edge of school choice, but we know there’s still much to do. Glad to hear your kids are getting the education they need and deserve.

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citygrl December 4, 2013 - 6:05 pm

Why is the Obama administration so opposed to school choice when clearly Michelle directly benefited from the ability to attend a school an hour from where she lived? Sounds very hypocritical to say that yes I benefited from school choice but your children should not have the same opportunity?!

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