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Obama inauguration is all the buzz at L.A. schools
When Nasser Baker's mother received a call from his school this month and began jumping and screaming, he thought she had seen a spider. But when he learned that his South Los Angeles charter school had chosen him as one of 12 students headed to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration, 10-year-old Nasser started jumping up and down too.
The event will provide a double dose of excitement, says Nasser, a fifth-grader at the KIPP Academy of Opportunity: "I've never been on an airplane before, and this is the inauguration . . . that is the most historical."
A huge crowd is expected to arrive in the nation's capital for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, though there will be only 240,000 tickets to the swearing-in ceremony Jan. 20. Many of the visitors are likely to be young students like Nasser, who are flocking to the inauguration in unprecedented numbers, according to educators and travel company officials.
Tour operators say there is a soaring demand from elementary and secondary schools that want to send their students to Washington for Inauguration Day, even if they are unlikely to obtain tickets to official events. Interest climbed during the primary campaign, fueled by Obama's and Hillary Rodham Clinton's historic candidacies, and has only intensified, they say.
"Teachers are excited about having the opportunity to show kids the inauguration," said Debbie Gibb, associate executive director of the Michigan-based Student & Youth Travel Assn., whose 800 members include tour operators, hotels, and convention and visitor bureaus.
"There is a lot of excitement around Obama's election," she said. "Young people are very enthusiastic because they heard his appeal to them."
Gibb said her members were receiving five to 10 times more requests for this inauguration than previous ones. The travel association estimates that the number of students attending the 2009 festivities will be five times greater than those at President Bush's second inaugural, in 2005.
New Jersey-based Starr Tours, for instance, has 40 of its 50 buses booked for the Obama inauguration -- 30 of them with K-12 students. Five coaches were booked for the 2005 events.
Gibb said tour companies would be holding their own "inauguration balls" for students and renting out dinner cruise ships to "make the kids feel like 'Wow, I'm a part of this.' "
George Cooley, domestic tourism sales manager at Destination DC, the capital's convention and tourism bureau, said that within 24 hours of the election, his office was "steamrolled" with calls from student groups as well as adults from all over the country.
The students are less likely to stay in downtown Washington because of the steep room rates, which can range from $500 to $1,000 a night. Cooley said some groups were reserving rooms as far as North Carolina; Richmond, Va.; Ocean City, Md.; and areas of Pennsylvania.
The estimates of student attendance don't include groups from schools such as KIPP, which has not booked a tour. School Director Ian Guidera and half of the 20-member staff decided on election night that they had to be at the inauguration.
Guidera contacted Virgin America, which had supported the school in the past. The airline pledged to cover the costs of 12 students, who were chosen based on essays about why they deserved to go.
The KIPP students -- mostly African American and Latino -- said they felt an intense connection to the inauguration.
"To know that I could have the chance to see the man who has been pushed toward success like I am being pushed now makes me feel confident because it showed me that I could be president one day," wrote Jacquelyn Smith, 11, who also was selected.
The KIPP students will also tour colleges during their trip, Guidera said, and will probably bunk with his relatives who live in the area.
For the Los Angeles Unified School District's Madison Middle School, accommodations are not the issue: The North Hollywood campus reserved its flights and hotel rooms months ago.
But the school still must raise $1,100 per student for a contingent that has grown to 35. Besides seeing the D.C. sights, the students will tour Mount Vernon and hold their own inauguration ceremony.
"Failure is not an option," said teacher Terre Fallon, who recently toted 300 cases of chocolates to a youth festival at a Van Nuys park to help the fundraising effort.
The school has gotten some support from Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and others, but it is also depending on students and families, carwashes and raffles.
"The last obstacle to an educational experience should be money," Fallon said. "Our job as educators is not just to get in the classroom and tell them about things but to show them."
Though the private Wildwood School in West Los Angeles is not sponsoring a trip, several students, including Quincy Hunter-Daniel, will attend the inauguration with their families. Quincy, 12, was an Obama campaign volunteer and traveled with his mother to Las Vegas to help canvass votes.
"So much work was done and I did only a small part, but I feel like I helped a little," he said.
Wildwood students Kendall Ferguson, 12, and her brother, Jordan, 13, will join their extended family at the inauguration and expect to attend one of the balls.
Jordan noted that Obama's swearing-in ceremony comes one day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
"It's very special it comes one after the other," he said.
Mariana Benjamin, 14, also from Wildwood, is one of the lucky few who will watch Obama take the oath of office and will attend the inaugural ball as a delegate to the six-day Presidential Youth Leadership Conference.
"I've been reading where they're expecting millions of people, and part of that blows my mind," said Mariana, who has to raise about $2,300 in tuition for the event.
St. James' Episcopal School in Los Angeles is planning an ambitious trip. The school will send nine sixth-graders as student journalists (they are seeking press credentials), who will do blogging and video podcasts on St. James' website, technology teacher Laura Hollis said.
"I feel like [I'll be] at the signing of the Declaration of Independence," said Christopher Han, 11, who is also excited because his birthday is on Inauguration Day.
Jackson Leipzig, 11, said he's already relishing the thought of telling his great-grandchildren about the trip.
"We're going to be right there, and we're going to get more of a sense of being a part of it," Jackson said.
Rivera is a Times staff writer.