04/12/11 — A message for the president

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A message for the president

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 12, 2011 1:46 PM

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Stormie Holish, left, and Ashton Tygart, 10th-graders at Wayne Early/Middle College High School, flank a computer screen showing their two-minute "We are WEMCHS" video that netted the school a 1-in-6 shot at having President Obama as its commencement speaker next month. The students were creative directors of the video, which can also be seen on YouTube under WEMCHS.mp4.

A few weeks ago, Stormie Holish and Ashton Tygart were content to be on the sidelines at Wayne Early/Middle College High School.

That was before their video -- aimed at getting President Barack Obama to speak at graduation ceremonies next month -- went viral.

Now everyone at the school knows them.

On Friday, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education announced its list of finalists for this year's Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. WEMCH is one of six public high schools in the nation still in the contest, recognizing schools that best equip students for college.

"I'm excited about it," said Lee Johnson, WEMCH principal since it opened on the Wayne Community College campus in 2006. "Our kids and our teachers have worked really hard every year to accomplish the things that we set out to accomplish."

But it was the two 10th-graders who deserve accolades for their video editing and creativity, she said.

"When we found out about the contest, we put it out to the whole student body," she explained. "We had a classroom full of kids ... brainstormed ... and these two girls took the technology piece on."

To hear Ashton and Stormie tell it, though, the hardest part was learning an unfamiliar computer program. That and speaking up.

Stormie said it was a bit daunting to be in a classroom filled with upperclassmen and raising their hands. But they were confident enough in their ideas to do just that, and it wound up propelling them into the forefront to their filmmaking debut.

They only had two minutes to get their message across in the video, so they stuck to a very basic premise -- their school's strengths.

The emphasis, Stormie explained, was "that we're kind of the wave of the future and we move forward. Schools sometimes go backward instead of forward because of overcrowding."

"(We showed) what our school is all about, how we're enrolled in high school and college classes, dual enrollment," Ashton said.

There was no guarantee the video would reach finalist status, so the two anxiously awaited the official announcement. Mrs. Johnson was notified on Thursday, a day in advance of the official release, and scheduled a schoolwide assembly for Friday afternoon.

"They said they were going to post it live at 1 o'clock (Friday)," Stormie said. "They were kind of late, so we called the White House. They said, 'We're running behind.'"

Moments later, their school's name appeared across the computer screen.

"We were jumping up and down," Stormie said.

Teachers and staff shared in the excitement.

Rick White, science teacher, said he is especially proud of the school, as "what we do here is the way education should be available."

Maurice Nicholson, English teacher, said his philosophy of the school's culture is one he often shares with parents.

"You take a kid, you set the standards higher, you give them all the resources that they need and it works," he said.

The proof, though, can be seen in the school's data. Starting out with only juniors and seniors, each year another grade was added until it reached four-year status.

In three years of graduating classes, the school has boasted a 100 percent graduation rate.

This is the first graduating class that has been at WEMCH for all four years. Half of the 58 seniors will receive a high school diploma and an associate degree.

Nikea Randolph has been accepted to attend Columbia College in South Carolina in the fall. It would be a "really big honor" to have the president speak at her graduation, she said.

"I think it's unbelievable, it's quite impressive for all of us," she said. "We know that we can succeed ... but it would be pretty cool if we win. It's definitely very inspirational."

Seniors Irene Tsui and Jerry Jones have also been at WEMCH all four years. They are what the school categorizes "first-generation college students," or having parents who did not obtain an advanced degree.

Irene, who plans to attend pharmacy school in Tennessee, will graduate from WEMCH with an associate in arts degree and associate in science degree. Jerry will have an associate in arts degree and plans to attend Appalachian State University in the building science program.

They will miss the "family-oriented" atmosphere of their high school, they said, and consider it an "honor and a privilege" that the president might speak at commencement.

There is still work to be done for the next round of competition, though, which entails putting together another video.

Mrs. Johnson said she will again meet with students to brainstorm ideas, followed by 10 hours of taping on Wednesday and 10 hours of editing on Thursday.

"It's all happening this week," she said. "Possibly as early as next week it will be posted on the White House website."

All six schools' videos will be featured on the White House website for the public to vote, narrowing down the field to the top three. From those, the president will select the winning school, where he will be speaking.

The students' first video can be found on YouTube at WEMCH.mp4.

No matter the outcome, though, the pride and school spirit the effort has generated will not soon be forgotten.

"I grew so much just working on this video," Stormie said. "I will never take a 10-second video for granted again."