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Originally published Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 9:50 AM

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President Obama not coming to Bridgeport High School

President Obama is not coming to little Bridgeport High School in Eastern Washington as its commencement speaker. The school got the news Tuesday morning.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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There will be no commencement speech from President Obama at Bridgeport High School in North Central Washington, the student body of 200 teens from low-income families found out Tuesday morning.

The school's principal, Tamra Jackson, called all the students to the gym to break the news.

She said she wanted the students to feel pride in being among three finalists in the Commencement Challenge nationwide contest that White House officials said drew hundreds of entries.

Over the weekend, Jackson had bought little U. S. flags at the Walmart in nearby Omak, and passed them out to all the kids. They were served ice cream, and a group of teachers known for their enthusiasm "did a little jig, a little celebratory dance," said the principal.

"I could have approached this so they were all crying," said Jackson. "But I wanted to celebrate today. I told them, 'How awesome you are. Can you imagine? One of three in the whole nation!' "

The winner is Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn.

The White House said that the winning school had a graduation rate that went from 55 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2010.

"Booker T. Washington High School proves what can be accomplished when students, teachers, parents and administrators come together to support achievement in the classroom," Obama said in a news release.

Jackson said her school will get a Cabinet member as commencement speaker, although it's not clear who that will be. She said that Gov. Chris Gregoire also will attend the commencement.

Bridgeport was among three finalists picked from a group whittled to six schools by the public using a White House website. Each school submitted an essay and a video explaining why it's worthy of a visit by the president.

Nearly 100,000 people from across the country submitted almost 300,000 ratings of the submissions.

It was the president himself who chose the eventual winner. The other finalist was High Tech High International in San Diego.

Jackson said that on Tuesday morning, in her office, she waited for the call from the White House with five seniors, all girls, who had helped put together the video about Bridgeport High.

Also in the office was a cameraman from MTV to videotape the event. MTV, working with the Get Schooled Foundation, had previously sent a producer and editor from New York City to help put together the school's contest video.

When the call came from the White House aide, Jackson put it on speakerphone.

The aide did not immediately announce who the winner was.

"The phone call was maybe 10 minutes long, and he spent the first five minutes praising us, and highlighting how amazing the school is," said Jackson.

Listening to those minutes of praise, said Jackson, "I had a sense of what that meant. Then his wording was somewhere along the lines of, 'I have some news that you're not going to think is the best. The president won't be speaking at the graduation, but a Cabinet member will be.' "

Jackson told the five girls in the room that they should be very proud.

"But they were taking it kind of hard," said the principal. "They were starting to cry."

One of the girls listening on the speakerphone was Norma Camacho, who has been accepted to Eastern Washington University and plans to study nursing.

"My heart just dropped," she said. "As soon as he told us the news, my tears came out. So close, and you didn't get picked."

The Obama commencement contest is in its second year. It was started in response to a College Board report that found the U.S. had dropped from first to 12th in adults with college degrees (Canada is now No. 1).

The Bridgeport school is the main hub in the small Douglas County town of 2,409 along the Columbia River north of Wenatchee. There are 200 students in the high school, mostly Hispanic, and the senior class is all of 37. They mostly are the children of migrant workers who came to work in the fruit orchards and stayed.

The families live in poverty, with a median annual family income of $30,633 — about one-third as much as Seattle's $85,432; 100 percent of the kids are on the reduced-price and free lunch program.

But every one of the 37 seniors has been accepted to a college.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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