The students at Miami Central High screamed, cried and threw their arms into the air when President Barack Obama walked into their gymnasium Friday afternoon.
But it was the president who said he was moved.
"It's inspiring to think about where you were a few years ago and where you are today," Obama told the teenagers. "You came together to turn this school around, and I think the rest of us can learn from that."
Obama traveled to Central to deliver a message to low-performing schools across the country: Follow the Central model.
Central, once the school with the worst academic record in Florida, has made a remarkable transformation over the past five years. And Obama has made school turnarounds a pillar of his education agenda.
Joining the president was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who stressed that education reform is a bipartisan effort.
"Education is not a Republican issue nor a Democrat issue," he said. "It's an issue of national priority."
Inside the gymnasium, about 650 lucky students packed the bleachers to hear the president speak. They included teenagers who had made the honor roll, those with perfect attendance and the school's state championship football team.
"I never thought Obama would come to a school in Miami-Dade because people have said our school is bad," said Toree Boyd, a junior who was sitting with his football teammates. "But we did go up a school grade and now we get to see Obama for the first time."
Guests also included top teachers, community leaders, Miami-Dade School Board members, state Education Commissioner Eric Smith, state Board of Education member Roberto Martinez and U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The presidential visit to Central kicked off a month devoted to education policy. The president said he plans to spend March traveling across the country to talk to school leaders, teachers and parents about education reform.
Among his top policy goals: creating lasting change at the nation's 2,000 lowest-performing schools.
It was Bush who suggested Obama visit Central.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Bush had boasted about Central "because it tells an incredible story of the impact successful turnaround strategies and models can have on persistently low-performing schools."
For an entire decade, Central had received D and F grades from the state, making it the worst-performing public school in Florida. The campus was dirty and considered dangerous.
On the verge of having to close the school, the Miami-Dade superintendent instead opted to institute dramatic changes. He brought in the state's principal of the year, Doug Rodriguez, who instituted an environment of respect and discipline. More than half of the teachers were replaced. What's more, the school entered into a partnership with Teach for America, the national organization that recruits top college graduates to teach in troubled schools.
Within three years, the school grade had jumped to a C.
Obama praised Central's progress.
"It isn't easy to turn around an expectation of failure and make that into an expectation of excellence," he said. "In fact, it's one of the hardest things you can do."
He held up Central as a model for other schools.
"Your school did it the right way, with a process that even had the support of teachers and their local unions, because you recognized that partnership among teachers and school administrators and the community, that's the path to reform," Obama said. "Outstanding teachers and principals, a common mission, a culture of high expectations — that's what it takes to turn a school around. That's what accounts for progress here at Miami Central."
After leaving Central, Obama attended two fundraisers — one for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and top GOP target Florida Sen. Bill Nelson; and a second for Wasserman Schultz, a rising Democratic star who is helping her party's efforts to retake the House in 2012.
Not everyone was happy with Bush's attendance at Central.
Dozens of teachers and parents gathered to protest Bush's involvement in the event.
"We always welcome the president, but we cannot support the Jeb Bush education agenda," United Teachers of Dade president Karen Aronowitz said. "That agenda relies strictly on the testing of students and eliminates funding for important parts of our curriculum like the arts, physical education and gifted classes."
Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.