MIAMI -- The students at Central High screamed, cried and threw their arms into the air when President Barack Obama walked into their gymnasium Friday afternoon.
But it was the president who said he was moved.
“It’s inspiring to think about where you were a few years ago and where you are today,” Obama told the teenagers. “You came together to turn this school around, and I think the rest of us can learn from that.”
Obama traveled to Central to deliver a message to low-performing schools across the country: Just follow the Central model.
Central, once the school with the worst academic record in Florida, has made a remarkable transformation over the past five years. And Obama has made school turnarounds a pillar of his education agenda.
Joining the president was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who stressed that education reform is a bi-partisan effort.
“Education is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue,” he said. “It’s an issue of national priority.”
Inside the gymnasium, about 650 lucky students packed the bleachers to hear the president speak. They included teenagers who had made the honor roll, those with perfect attendance and the school’s state championship winning football team.
“I never thought Obama would come to a school in Miami-Dade because people have said our school is bad,’’ said Toree Boyd, a junior who was sitting with his football teammates. “But we did go up a school grade and now we get to see Obama for the first time.’’
Guests also included top teachers, community leaders, Miami-Dade School Board members, state Education Commissioner Eric Smith, state Board of Education member Roberto Martinez and U.S. Representatives Frederica Wilson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
“Today is like Oscar night,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.
The presidential visit to Central kicked off a month devoted to education policy. The president said he plans to spend March traveling across the country to talk to school leaders, teachers and parents about education reform.
Among his top policy goals: creating lasting change at the nation’s 2,000 lowest-performing schools.
It was Bush who suggested Obama visit Central.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Bush had boasted about Central “because it tells an incredible story of the impact successful turnaround strategies and models can have on persistently low-performing schools.”
For an entire decade, Central had received D and F grades from the state, making it the worst performing public school in Florida. The campus was dirty and considered dangerous.
On the verge of having to close the school, the Miami-Dade superintendent instead opted to institute dramatic changes. He brought in the state’s principal of the year, Doug Rodriguez, who instituted an environment of respect and discipline. More than half the teachers were removed and replaced. What’s more, the school entered into a partnership with Teach for America, the national organization that recruits top college graduates to teach in troubled schools.
Within three years, the school grade had jumped to a C.
Obama praised Central’s progress.
“It isn’t easy to turn around an expectation of failure and make that into an expectation of excellence,” he said. “In fact, it’s one of the hardest things you can do.”
He held up Central as a model for other schools to follow.
“Your school did it the right way, with a process that even had the support of teachers and their local unions, because you recognized that partnership among teachers and school administrators and the community, that’s the path to reform,” Obama said.
“Outstanding teachers and principals, a common mission, a culture of high expectations -- that’s what it takes to turn a school around. That’s what accounts for progress here at Miami Central.”
The students stood, waved their arms and cheered.
During his 90 minutes at the school, the president visited a science classroom, where he watched students build robots that pick up donuts.
He caused a near mob by surprising a couple hundred students who had gathered in the library to watch his speech on closed-circuit television. When he walked in, they rushed each other, standing on chairs and tables trying to reach him, take his photo or shake his hand.
“The turnaround that has been accomplished here is the reason I wanted to come here,” Obama told them. “It’s sending a message to kids across the country that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish when we put our minds to it.”
After leaving Central, Obama attended two fundraisers -- one for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and top GOP target Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and a second for Wasserman Schultz, a rising Democratic star who is helping her party’s efforts to retake the House in 2012.
When the presidential motorcade had departed the school, students said they would long remember the day.
Said senior Dwayne Brown: “I’m a kid in high school who gets to see Obama. Who gets to say that?”
Despite the palpable excitement, not everyone was happy with Bush’s attendance at Central.
Dozens of teachers and parents gathered on street corners around the school to protest Bush’s involvement in the event.
“We always welcome the president, but we cannot support the Jeb Bush education agenda,” United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz said. “That agenda relies strictly on the testing of students and eliminates funding for important parts of our curriculum like the arts, physical education and gifted classes.”
When asked what she thought of Bush’s attendance, Rep. Wilson, who was a state legislator while he was governor, put her hand to her sequined cowboy hat and bowed her head as in great despair.
“We have to be careful about what it is we’re doing,’’ said Wilson, who was also once a principal.
“You can’t just test and test. You’ve got to teach and teach.”