Students take lessons from Obama inauguration

More than 600 elementary and middle school students at Crossroads School in Santa Monica will watch the swearing-in of the nation’s 44th president today on 9-foot by 12-foot projection screens. Final exams were delayed a day for the high school students so they could participate.

At Brentwood School, Cassy Clarke’s fifth-grade class will be taking notes during incoming President Barack Obama’s speech to compare it to President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, and they will also study the different crises faced by these two politicians from Illinois.

And in Compton, parents are invited to all 40 of that district’s schools where English- and Spanish-language broadcasts will be provided as well as interpreters for Spanish speakers. In addition, community members are invited to view the ceremonies in the district’s board room.

More than any inauguration in recent memory, educators said, schools in Los Angeles and across the country are mounting ambitious efforts to let students not only witness the historical event but also use it as an educational experience.

Obama, the first African American to lead the nation, had a platform of hope and change that resonated with young people, even if they were too young to vote.


It all adds up to a dramatic instructional moment and one of cultural gravity -- akin to earlier generations witnessing the first steps on the moon or the election of John F. Kennedy, educators said.

As a result, the 3,000 students who attend Inner City Education Foundation charter schools will get the day off to spend with their families. Ninety percent of students, 70% of teachers and 11 of 13 school principals are African American, Inner-City founder and Chief Executive Officer Michael Piscal said.

Students have studied the speeches of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and after the inauguration, they will focus on speeches by Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Kennedy.

“It’s an amazing event for our students who are under 18 and haven’t fully formed their consciousness,” Piscal said. “They see Obama and say, ‘This is a president who looks like me, I can be president.’ ”

In Compton Unified, once largely African American and now 70% Latino, tensions have arisen between black and brown students. The inauguration is viewed as a way to help bring the community together, Supt. Kaye E. Burnside said.

“It’s an opportunity for our family members, community and schools to share and celebrate a remarkable event as one and look at the significance of the message that our students can be whatever they want to be, the color of their skin doesn’t matter,” Burnside said.

Parents also are invited to join their children at Vistamar School in El Segundo, where students also are working on speeches about what Obama should do during his first 100 days in office.

“It’s a bonding experience if the older and younger generation can watch it together,” said Carl Katerndahl, 17, a senior who has invited his mother to school. “This is one of the biggest days of our short lives, especially because we’ve heard that Obama is going to be sworn in on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used. For our new generation, it is setting an example of what is to come and what we are capable of. For older generations, it shows what progress we’ve made.”

Richard Simon, a Vistamar trustee, will be joining his 16-year-old son, Evan, at school. “I want him to broaden his view of the world and I want him to recognize that we live in very turbulent times,” Simon said. “It doesn’t always come home to these kids to be interested in the outside world, but I suspect this will be, as the cliche goes, a very teachable moment.”

Virtually all schools began the week with Monday off in celebration of Martin Luther King Day. But with final exams beginning today in many schools, some administrators say, the day will be business as usual.

“There’s nothing planned school-wide,” said Shawn Ashley, principal at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. “We’ll leave it up to individual teachers to decide if they want to include viewing the inauguration within their curriculum or not. I think it’s a historic event, but a teacher teaching intermediate algebra might think they need that class time.”

At the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, one parent’s suggestion on an Internet support group that every classroom tune into the inaugural address provoked a furious response from others who argued that watching the event would interrupt important course work.

The magnet school’s parent-teacher council ultimately approved a plan to have a school-wide viewing of the inaugural events in the gymnasium, auditorium or in individual classrooms, depending on the teachers’ preference. The school also will have a contest to select a letter to be sent to Obama with advice on issues concerning young people.

Jay Smith, the parent who suggested that the school allow students to observe the ceremonies live, said he was pleased with the outcome.

“My pitch was that it doesn’t matter where your politics are, it’s still a historic moment that offers a lot of hope and encouragement,” said Smith, whose son is an eighth-grader at the school.

Officials at other schools said they had not encountered negative feedback about their inauguration plans.

Although classes in previous years have watched inaugurations and studied the presidency, Brentwood’s Clarke said this would be the first in which her students will examine the words of a particular incoming president in such depth.

“They will develop their skills of analysis and it will also bring in an English lesson,” she said. “It’s so interesting to be able to link current events with the past. The country’s history does have a cyclical nature and we can turn to the past as to how to live our lives now.”

Students at Banning High will also view the ceremonies while hoping to spot one of their classmates, 18 of whom -- members of a senior government class -- will be in Washington attending inaugural activities with tickets provided by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

At Pasadena Unified’s Cleveland Elementary School, students assembled a memory box that included poems, school T-shirts and letters written by students to Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha. It is expected to be hand-delivered to the first daughters this week by one of the school’s patrons, Terrence Roberts.

Roberts was one of nine African American students who desegregated Little Rock, Ark.'s all-white Central High in 1957, a milestone in the civil rights movement.