At the Village of Excellence charter school, public speaking is part of the curriculum. This month, children are practicing the speeches of Barack Obama. • As in schools around the nation, there was a mock presidential election in November. Principal Cametra Edwards doesn't remember the exact vote count. But, she says with confidence and a smile, "They elected Barack Obama." • At Hillsborough County schools with large minority populations — in this case, 90 percent black — the Jan. 20 inauguration is Christmas in January and then some. • Teachers are using Obama's life story to motivate students, while capitalizing on the excitement that surrounds him to teach everything from vocabulary to economics. Even principals boarding planes for next week's inauguration are making sure their students can relish the milestone. • "The fact that this president reflects this community really does make a difference," said Edwards, who will be in Washington, D.C. "It means they can be anything."
Budget scuttles trip
At Dowdell Middle Magnet School in Clair-Mel, principal Robert Lawson gives a heavy sigh.
Back in March, he said he felt certain Obama would win. Wanting to share the occasion with students in need of motivation, he began to organize a trip to the capital for the kids in AVID, a study-skills program for mid-level students.
"We hoped to carry 90 to 100 kids,'' Lawson said. Federal funds for low-income schools would be used for bus transportation — or so he thought. District budget cuts scuttled their plans.
"We had told the parents, and they were really upset," said AVID coordinator Keith Jacobs.
Lawson still plans to go to D.C. But he has instructed his staff at the east Tampa school to make sure every student is able to see and celebrate the moment.
There will be streaming video in several school locations. Refreshments will be served, and students will receive packets of educational information. Already, social studies teachers have devoted lessons to Obama's plans to revive the economy.
"I think we're viewing history," Lawson said. "By the same token, it's going to get a lot of children who were underserved to become the first in their generation to focus on going to college or being successful. The president is proof that the barriers and walls that had been put up for years have been torn down."
Jacobs agreed. "Barack Obama gives them a role model that, for them, is real," he said.
"He did not get where he is through athletics or music. He worked really hard, and he wasn't born into this. … He comes from a single-parent family. His mother raised him, and his grandmother. Our kids can identify with that."
More than half the students at Riverhills Elementary School in Temple Terrace are black. Close to 80 percent are poor. Turnover is so high that principal Jackie Scaglione, now in her sixth year there, made a list of graduating students who started in kindergarten. The names fit on a Post-it note.
"Our children here know their potential. We tell them their potential all the time," she said. "We have instilled high expectations from day one, no matter what color and no matter what background they come from."
Still, the election energized the students and has given teachers a new opening to get them excited about government and the upcoming inauguration. "Of course it's a great vocabulary word to teach the children," she said.
Her "Magnificent Multipliers," a club she created to boost math performance, will view the ceremony in the media center over a catered lunch.
Although lessons will vary according to age, Scaglione's staff will explain Obama's role as head of state, and how he compares to other world leaders.
"We're going to talk about Congress, that it is not just the president, and that other people oversee the president,'' she said. "I want to instill in them an understanding, for every election season, so they can look at the candidates and know what they stand for."
Fifth-graders in Kathy Massey's class expect that the new president will get the troops out of Iraq, help families who lost their homes, combat racism, and lower prices on fuel and a college education.
"He has to be the president day and night. He can never stop being the president," said student Anthony Brundidge.
Some wonder whether a black president will be accepted overseas. Others are proud of the example it sets for other societies. "If we can do it, maybe they can do it," Taylor Schwickrath said.
Kendell Hodges was moved by images of the cheering crowds, driving home the idea that anyone can be president.
Did he believe it before?
"A little bit," he said. "But now I believe it more."
A teaching moment
The school district has provided teachers with materials and suggested Web sites to help students understand what will take place Tuesday, integrating the inauguration into their reading and social studies lessons.
"We don't just turn on the television," said Tricia McManus, principal of Just Elementary School in central Tampa. Her older students will know who will play music (the U.S. Marine Band), who will sing (Aretha Franklin) and who will deliver the invocation (the Rev. Rick Warren).
Everyone will view the event — a first for the school.
McManus was impressed during a conversation with a fifth-grade student who wants to be a judge. She could sense the student responded when advised to work on her test scores and sign up for challenging classes in middle school.
"I do think in our students' minds, [Obama's presidency] has opened doors for them,'' McManus said. "It is a sense of, 'He can be the president, and so can I.' "
At Sulphur Springs Elementary School, Obama is a living, breathing character lesson for children who get into trouble.
"We've tied that in with the president," principal Christi Buell said. "We tell them, 'You know, you could be the next president. Do you think this is something that someone who wants to be president would do?' "
Closing the gap
While the choices are relatively simple in elementary school, when they get to Dowdell they are life choices.
More than 85 percent of the children are economically disadvantaged.
The school is racially balanced, pulling magnet students districtwide and neighborhood students from the east Hillsborough neighborhoods of Clair-Mel and Palm River.
But, as in other schools, white students outperform minorities by wide margins on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
When seventh-graders were last tested in reading, 37 percent of black students and 37 percent of Hispanic students scored at Level 3 or higher, compared with 60 percent of white students.
While it's too early to quantify the effect Obama's presidency will have on minority performance, experts intuitively say it can only help.
Dave Saba, president of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence in Washington, D.C., has seen the effect firsthand at a charter school he helps run. "It's a whole bunch of little things. We talk about education, and they are not rolling their eyes. It will be very difficult to quantify. But over the next five years, we will see the achievement gap close."
Jacobs and Lawson said they already have noticed a deeper sense of pride and higher aspirations. "They want to do law, and they want to do medicine," Jacobs said.
The message is simple, said Deion Vazquez at Riverhills: "Now we know anyone can do it. And maybe someday even a woman can."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.