Obama Cabinet official salutes tiny school’s ‘magnificent’ grads

BRIDGEPORT — The 37 seniors graduating from high school in this rural Eastern Washington farm town come from poor families who labor in the surrounding fruit orchards and packing sheds. Many of their parents speak little or no English or didn’t finish high school.

Bridgeport felt very much l

ike home to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the nation’s first Hispanic woman Cabinet member and the daughter of immigrants, who traveled to Bridgeport High School to deliver the commencement address Wednesday.

Solis credited a school counselor with encouraging her to pursue college, despite being one of seven children in a working-class family in a California community much like Bridgeport. Her small high school’s colors, coincidentally, were orange and black like the Bridgeport Mustangs.

“Mom and dad worked in factories. Nobody ever went to college,” she said, adding that she could count on one hand the number of students in her high school class who went on to college.

“They had the same ability I had. It tells me so much can be done if people give of their hearts,” she said. “To believe in oneself. To know you can pick yourself up from the boot straps and make a change.”

Bridgeport High School largely serves Hispanic students in the farm town of 2,400 that sits 120 miles east of Seattle. Poverty levels here are high, and most of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch.

Yet all 37 seniors — 16 young men and 21 women — are graduating. Nearly all are going on to college or trade schools, and many have already taken courses for college credit.

Bridgeport offers 16 classes for college credit, more than some of the largest urban high schools.

It was the school’s on-time graduation rate that bests the national average and high number of college-level courses that made it one of three national finalists in President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. The contest invites public high schools across the country to demonstrate how they prepare students for college and a career, with the reward a presidential speech at graduation.

Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn., which was the first school to educate black students in that area, ultimately won the honor.

However, Solis called the students “magnificent” for their achievements, reminding them to determine their own futures.

“You don’t have to know all the answers to anything, because your journey is going to take you down a road that will show you the way,” she said. “Understand that it’s going to make you a better person in your life, not only for your family, but for your country. That’s what this is all about.”

Solis also met with the students and their families before the ceremony, chatting with them, posing for photos and encouraging them to continue their education.

Eighteen-year-old Alex Gomez took those words to heart. The graduating senior will attend Wenatchee Valley Community College to study mechanics.

“I want to be just like that — be better, better myself, go to college and do my best,” he said.

Sam Soto, 18, found the secretary’s comments about her background particularly telling. Soto was born in Mexico but immigrated to Bridgeport with his parents. He plans to attend Wenatchee Valley Community College.

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