White House memo notes shortage of applicants for contest to have Obama to speak at high school graduation

President Barack Obama speaks as he delivers the commencement speech for Kalamazoo Central High School at Western Michigan University arena in Kalamazoo, Michigan. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama speaks as he delivers the commencement speech for Kalamazoo Central High School at Western Michigan University arena in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
The White House is ramping up an effort to promote a nationwide competition to decide which high school wins a commencement speech by President Obama.

An internal White House memo indicates that the White House is facing a shortage of applications less than a week before the deadline.

The competition was extended from the February 25 deadline until Friday, March 11 after few schools met the original application deadline. CBS News has learned a White House Communications Office internal memo dated February 22 noted "a major issue with the Commencement Challenge."

"As of yesterday we had received 14 applications and the deadline is Friday," the memo said. The memo also urged recipients to, "please keep the application number close hold."

A follow-up memo on February 28 reported receipt of 68 applications. Noting the competition among more than 1,000 schools last year, the memo said, "Something isn't working." It called on staffers to ask "friendly congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral offices" to encourage schools to apply. 

"We should also make sure the Cabinet is pushing the competition out to their lists," the memo said. The note reiterated, "We do not want the actual application number out there (we didn't release the number of applications we received last year until after the submission period)-so folks should not use it in their pitches."

On Monday, officials declined to cite the number of applications received so far.

The president will travel to the school that is judged to best prepare students for college and careers. The competition is part of Mr. Obama's ultimate goal of making the U.S. the country with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

Officials were unable to explain the reason for the apparent lack of interest, beyond pointing to possible procrastination by school systems.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told CBS Radio News, "It's a huge opportunity for high schools to tell their story." Asked about the lagging application numbers, Duncan said, "Folks are working hard." He called on schools to "put their best foot forward and join the competition."

Education Department press aide Elizabeth Utrup said the deadline was extended "to provide an ample amount of time to reach out to schools from across the country." Utrup added, "Like last year, we anticipate the overwhelming majority will be submitted near the close of the Challenge."

The White House has posted on-line video appeals from President Obama and a student from last year's winning school, Kalamazoo (Michigan) Central High. Entertainers John Legend and Nick Jonas recorded their own videos for the challenge when they were in Washington for a recent "In Performance at the White House" event.

The exact deadline for schools to apply is 11:59P.M., Eastern Time, March 11. More on the application process is posted here.

Update, March 8, 6:15 p.m. ET: Responding to questions about the CBS News story on Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney reported the White House has received "a large number" of applications and we look forward to a process that will produce a winner and a commencement speech from the president."

But Carney said he did not know how many schools have applied for the honor. The press secretary spoke to reporters Tuesday as President Obama flew to an education event in Boston.

 

Below, CBS News "Early Show" Special Contributor Ayla Brown reports on the students at Kalamazoo Central High School, where President Obama spoke last year:



Peter Maer is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • Peter Maer On Twitter»

    Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent.

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