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Park seeks Obama in graduation speech contest

Park High School teachers and students are proud of the academic strides the school has made in recent years.

Now they hope President Obama notices.

Buoyed by its International Baccalaureate program, a spike in advanced placement test participation and other achievements, Park is competing for the opportunity to have Obama speak at the Wolfpack's graduation ceremony this spring.

The school submitted an application to the national Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. The contest encourages public high schools to show how they prepare students for college and a career.

Park Principal Efe Agbamu said she learned of the competition and asked teacher Tim Hofmann to oversee the school's application. Hofmann teaches the school's AVID program, which focuses on college readiness and preparation.

Park's application spotlighted its increase in advanced placement exams, tests in a variety of subject areas that can net high school students college course credits.

Two years ago, 48 Park students took advanced placement exams. Last year, 179 Park students took advanced placement tests. The numbers spiked again this year with a total of 336 students taking 479 advanced placement exams, though this year's numbers were not available until after the school had to submit its Race to the Top Commencement Challenge application.

"That's huge," Hofmann said of the growing participation. "Basically what we're saying is a quarter of our population is now taking accelerated exams."

"To me," he added, "it's just a testament to how much we've changed the focus of the school to (one of) college readiness."

The application included student data, answers to three essay questions - written collaboratively by English students - and a student-produced video about Park.

The video project largely was turned over to senior Cody Klipsic, who is skilled at video filming and editing. The video, available for viewing on YouTube, highlights Park's achievements in the classroom and in athletics and features students talking candidly about how Park has helped them prepare for their post-secondary plans.

A tight deadline was just one challenge for Klipsic. Another was the audience; it wasn't lost on him that the audience could potentially include the president of the United States.

"This is going to be viewed by (an) audience that wouldn't normally watch my videos," joked Klipsic, who outside of school is interested in hand-drawn animation videos and wants to study film production after high school.

A core group of students helped with the project, Hofmann said. Klipsic managed the video's production, and Kayla Green narrated the video. A handful of students are featured in the video, along with the school's all-state academic athletes. The nearly 4-minute video ends with a guitar solo from Robert Briggs. The video's theme is "Park High stands by me."

The school showed the application video to staff at a meeting earlier this month that was attended by Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. Cassellius told school staff that she would put in a plug for Park when she saw U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weeks later.

A good word could certainly help with such long odds. Last year, more than 1,000 schools applied. Obama chose a school in Kalamazoo, Mich., and delivered a commencement address there.

This year, six schools will be selected from the applicants. They will be featured on the White House website, where the public will be able to vote on their favorite, narrowing the list to three schools. Obama will pick a national winner from those three entries and will speak at that school's commencement this spring.

Park teachers and students were excited at the prospects of winning, but were aware of the challenge of a nationwide contest.

"I think everybody is fairly realistic about (whether) this is going to happen," Hofmann said.

Watch Park's application video:

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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