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Obama plans visit to tech academy

Hopes to highlight education reform

News spread quickly about President Obama’s planned visit to TechBoston Academy yesterday. Seniors Terrance Miles (left), Reynaldo Montanaez, and Emilio Ortiz were excited about the visit, slated for Tuesday. Melinda Gates is expected to join Obama. News spread quickly about President Obama’s planned visit to TechBoston Academy yesterday. Seniors Terrance Miles (left), Reynaldo Montanaez, and Emilio Ortiz were excited about the visit, slated for Tuesday. Melinda Gates is expected to join Obama. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Peter Schworm, Akilah Johnson, and Glen Johnson
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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The students at TechBoston Academy tried to play it cool, did their best to shrug off the swirling news as no big deal. But it was no use. Even teenage indifference couldn’t hide their excitement.

Obama was coming.

“Wait a minute,’’ senior Terrance Miles said after learning of the president’s upcoming visit yesterday afternoon, smiling ear to ear. “This is like big news. Wow. This is huge.’’

President Obama will visit the Dorchester public school Tuesday, according to a White House official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge the plan before it was officially announced.

The president will make the visit before he attends a Democratic fund-raiser at the Museum of Fine Arts. Joined by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and philanthropist Melinda Gates, Obama plans to renew his call for the country to “out-educate the competition,’’ the official said.

Founded in 2002, the pilot school teaches nearly 800 students in grades 6 through 12, most of them from low-income families, and has drawn praise for its striking success in boosting their skills and preparing them for college.

The Obama administration chose the school, the official said, because it blends technology into the classroom, offers rigorous academic programs, and urges students to take courses at local colleges.

“It’s a school with purpose,’’ said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which has placed many TechBoston students in technology positions. “Students know why they are learning what they are learning. The whole school is organized around that principle.’’

Sullivan and other officials said they were thrilled that the school will receive the recognition of a presidential visit, and called it a well-deserved honor.

“They’re doing great work,’’ said Maureen Feeney, a Boston city councilor. “I think it’s a great prototype for the president, and anyone else who’s interested in education, to look at. It’s very exciting.’’

Obama plans to discuss the “shared responsibility that government, businesses, philanthropists, and communities have to promote innovative education strategies that will prepare American students to compete in a 21st-century economy,’’ the official said.

TechBoston was launched with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and has a wealth of private and nonprofit partners.

The school’s headmaster, Mary Skipper, said when she first heard that Obama planned to visit schools to build upon his call during the State of the Union for education reform, she thought TechBoston seemed to fit his criteria. Still, she never imagined her school would be selected.

“It’s a dream come true on many levels, not only with the president but also with Melinda Gates,’’ she said, describing the previous 24 hours, when she first heard of the possible visit, as a whirlwind.

Although many students arrive at TechBoston behind their peers on an academic level, they are able to catch up, graduate, and go on to college. The school’s college acceptance rate is about 95 percent, Skipper said.

She cited the use of technology as a key to the school’s success.

Every student in the eighth through 12th grade has a laptop computer and each classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of that,’’ Skipper said. “The chalk and talk of old does not exist. Students see that laptop as their tool . . . not just as a machine that you play video games on or you watch movies on.’’

Word of Obama’s visit did not arrive until after the school day had ended, but quickly spread. Teachers excitedly told one another the news, which was overheard by students milling about. Without official confirmation, however, some sounded unconvinced.

“I don’t know. It’s kind of random,’’ said senior Reynaldo Montanez, his nonchalance mirrored by two friends also getting help with their college applications.

Senior Steevens Esperant said he was eager for the chance to pepper the president with questions about the economy and the health care overhaul, though he worried that Obama might not have much time to interact with students.

“I like Obama, to be honest with you,’’ he said. “I may not agree with everything he does, but he’s done well so far. Being president of America is not an everyday job.’’

Still, Esperant maintained his cool demeanor. But when asked whether he was at all excited that the leader of the country was coming to his school, a smile cracked through.

“I am,’’ he conceded. “I am.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com, Akilah Johnson at ajohnson@globe.com, and Glen Johnson at johnson@globe.com.