Poor, Rural School in Washington May Get Commencement Address from Obama

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REUTERS/Larry Downing

Presidents don’t normally visit places like Bridgeport, Wash., a rural town of 2,400 residents.

But Bridgeport High School has a few distinct attributes that have made it a finalist—one of three left in the running—to receive a visit and commencement address from President Obama.

In its second year, Obama’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge invites high schools across the country to apply with the goal of having the President speak at their graduation. He started the program in an effort to have the highest share of college graduates worldwide by 2020. High schools with exceptionally impressive graduation rates and college acceptance levels have the best shot at winning his challenge and those schools are generally charter schools, schools where special entrance applications are needed or places where money isn’t an issue.

(More on TIME.com: The college admission challenge)

Money is an issue at Bridgeport, where the town’s median income hovers around $30,000. “We are a traditional high school doing amazing things with public funding,” Bridgeport High School Principal Tamra Jackson tells NewsFeed. “We are rising above.”

Well above, actually. With only 200 students in grades nine through 12 and just 37 in the Class of 2011, Bridgeport boasts a 100% college acceptance rate—over 80% of the class has already committed to college. Bridgeport high’s population is 90% Hispanic and 100% of the district’s students qualify for the free- or reduced-lunch program.

Jackson, a former English teacher now in her 29th year at Bridgeport and her second as principal, says most of the students are the first in their family to attend high school. College? That was unheard of.

“We created our own prep program,” Jackson says about instilling a drive to succeed that has the school’s graduation rate at 94% since 2002. “We have set the bar pretty high and the students are meeting those standards.”

Jackson doesn’t allow excuses, not for non-English backgrounds or a lack of finances. Obama and the general public have taken notice.

Named a top-six semifinalist on April 8, Bridgeport survived a public vote via the White House website to make the final three. Votes from just one of the other five schools would have been more than the entire town of Bridgeport. Now the school sitting about 200 miles east of Seattle across the Cascade Mountains joins High Tech International in San Diego (a charter school) and Booker T. Washington in Memphis (a trendy favorite to win, as it is Memphis’ oldest high school created for African-Americans during segregation) in the final three. The ultimate decision rests with Obama, who could decide as early as Thursday or Friday as to which school wins his visit.

“We were awfully excited to be in the top six, but this is even greater,” Jackson says. “When we made the announcement, we had kids cheering, giving high-fives and crying.”

It was nerve-wracking to wait for the phone call on Monday morning that let her know Bridgeport made the top three, Jackson says, but she now feels optimistic about the school’s chances. “It was a long wait for that phone call, and I was just as excited as the kids,” she says. “I believe what is setting us apart is our rural setting and our real unique demographic.”

While Jackson says there’s no greater honor than telling the students they made the final cut, she may be leaving out one honor that could surpass it: telling the students they won the visit. But that call is up to Obama.

(More on TIME.com: Looking for better teachers)