Obama gives pep talk at TechBoston Academy: President hails school as model for nation

Pres. Obama: President Obama spoke at TechBoston Academy on Tuesday, March  8, 2011. Photo courtesy BPSPres. Obama: President Obama spoke at TechBoston Academy on Tuesday, March 8, 2011. Photo courtesy BPS
For Archana Ailawadhi, a college counselor at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, it was all about the numbers when President Barack Obama stopped by the school on Tuesday afternoon.

“The students here come from some tough neighborhoods – am I right?” asked the president. “Yes. And yet the graduation rate is almost 20 points higher than the rest of the city – 20 points higher,” Obama said to applause. “Ninety-four percent of the most recent graduating class went to college. Eighty-five percent of those students were the first in their family to do so. Your math and science scores are consistently higher than other Boston schools, and the attendance rate here is 94 percent.”

Ailawadhi smiled, recalling the moment. “I was overwhelmed,” she said after the speech, as local politicians and students milled around the gymnasium of the former Dorchester High School, still soaking in the pomp and circumstance of a presidential appearance.

“A lot of people thought we should just give up on places like Dorchester, and they assume that some kids just can’t learn, or they’ve got too many disadvantages,” Obama said. “There are always some excuses for why our young people couldn’t succeed. But after awhile, parents and teachers and education reformers started to realize that maybe Washington didn’t have all the answers. And I can promise you after being there for a few years, they’re onto something there.”

Obama pointed to TechBoston as a model for the nation. “We need to recognize that the true path to reform has to involve partnerships between teachers and school administrators and communities,” he said. “And we’ll need a national education policy that tries to figure out how do we replicate success stories like TechBoston all across the country.”

Nubian Gamble, a 16-year-old student, stood on the third row of the riser to Obama’s left. “It was such a rush,” she said. “I’ve never been that close to anybody so important.”

Obama, accompanied by the philanthropist Melinda Gates, also toured some of the classrooms. The innovative school, a pilot institution that is part of the Boston Public School system, opened in September 2002, and its sponsors and partners include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Boston Foundation, Microsoft, UMass-Boston, and Harvard University, among others.

“As the president said, we know what works,” said state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who represents a section of Dorchester and chairs the Senate side of the Legislature’s Education Committee.

“It’s a big deal he came to a school with students in a high needs category that’s doing a good job teaching them,” said John Barros, a member of the School Committee and executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. “He could’ve chosen a charter school.”

After chatting with about 20 students in James Louis’s biotechnology class before his speech, Obama turned to the teacher and said, “We’ve got chemists, engineers. You’re doing good.”

At one table of students, a 17-year-old senior from Dorchester, Jesse Barbosa, told the president that he wanted to study mechanical engineering at Northeastern University. “We need mechanical engineers,” Obama said. “That’s really important.”

The presidential visit drew crowds to Codman Square to catch the motorcade as it came and went. The area is a solidly blue neighborhood: In the precinct that includes TechBoston precinct, Obama beat Hillary Clinton by 317 to 88 in the 2008 Democratic primary, and then took 90 percent of the vote in the November finale against Republican Sen. John McCain.

The warmth of the reception was not unanimous: At the corner of Peacevale Road and Norfolk Street, there was a gathering protesting Obama’s proposed cuts to community block grants, which help fight homelessness and fund job training programs.

Inside the gymnasium before Obama’s speech, City Councillor Felix Arroyo was sporting a button stating “Save Community Action.” “I’m not protesting the president’s budget, I’m making a recommendation,” Arroyo quipped to reporters.

“It’s money that goes to poor and low income folks who need those services,” he said.

He added, chuckling and referring to the president’s podium, “I’m not sure he’s going to see my button from all the way up there.”

Mayor Thomas Menino, who greeted Obama on Logan International Airport’s tarmac and rode with him to the school, said they chatted about the budget cuts mayors are facing, as well as the cuts to community block grants.

After the speech, Obama’s motorcade made its way down Washington St. and eventually onto I-93, passing by Dorchester Bay.

Later, at a fundraiser for congressional Democrats at the Museum of Fine Arts, Obama noted that every TechBoston student gets a laptop and that the school, which made a “spectacular turnaround,” has a longer year and days, with 60 minutes per class. “That costs money,” he said, adding that the country must decide “what our priorities are, what our values are.”

During the TechBoston speech, Obama also singled out the school’s headmaster, Mary Skipper. “What’s needed are outstanding teachers and leaders like Skip who get more flexibility,” he said, adding, “I just like that name. I’m going call you Skip now.”

Material from the White House pool report by the Boston Globe’s Michael Levenson was used in this report. A copy of the president’s remarks is available at dotnews.com.