- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

First lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday told the graduating class of a Northeast D.C. public charter school that she and President Obama still battle doubts about their abilities and qualifications, but told the students that she does not heed such worries and neither should they.

“We all had doubts. We all heard nagging voices sometimes we still do asking us, ‘Will we be able to compete in this new arena?’” Mrs. Obama said. “But in the end, we were all more than ready. … I was more than ready and Barack Obama certainly is more than ready.”

Mrs. Obama then told the 98 graduates of Washington Math Science Technical High School that they are “more than ready to assume the mantle of leadership.” A spokeswoman for the first lady said every single graduating senior is going to college.

“The doors of opportunity are so wide open to you,” Mrs. Obama said, speaking in a long, dark graduation gown. “Nothing is standing in your way.”

Mrs. Obama’s entrance into Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium met with loud cheers from the crowd of several thousand, who also vigorously applauded her remarks.

The graduating class, and the crowd, were overwhelmingly African-American. Class valedictorian, Jaren Davis, who will be attending Georgetown University in the fall, said it was exciting to hold the ceremony at Howard, “the Mecca of historically black colleges.”

It was Mrs. Obama’s second commencement speech since becoming first lady. Like her first speech last month at the University of California, Merced, Mrs. Obama chose the school because of a letter written by a student asking that she come.

Jasmine Williams, one of the graduating seniors, wrote in the letter, “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,” she wrote.

As she introduced the first lady to speak, Miss Williams said that “opportunities for success are just there if we embrace them.”

Mrs. Obama said that even before she chose to come to WMST, she knew that she wanted to speak at a D.C. public school “because I wanted to celebrate the achievements of young people in my new hometown.”

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but usually privately run and open to students from all parts of the city, have produced mixed results in the city, where they first were allowed in 1995 under the D.C. School Reform Act.

Successful charters such as WMST, however, have provided some hope to a city whose public school system has long been plagued by an array of problems despite having one of the highest expenditure-per-pupil rates in the country.

Over the last decade, public school enrollment in the District has dropped from about 70,000 students to its current level of about 45,000 students. Charter schools have grown from a few thousand students to about 25,000 students.

The president has said he supports whatever works in education, but has drawn criticism for not doing more to sustain school vouchers in the District, which parents can use to send their children to the school of their choice, including private schools.

The Democratic-controlled Congress included a provision in a recent spending bill that would phase out the city’s voucher program — which provide $7,500 to about 1,700 low-income D.C. students — after 2010 unless lawmakers specifically reauthorize the program.

• Jon Ward can be reached at jward@washingtontimes.com.

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