ST. PETERSBURG — Travis Flowers stood before his fifth grade classmates at Melrose Elementary School Thursday morning and pledged to uphold the promises he made when he campaigned to be their mayor during a class election this week.
“I want to make sure everybody has sunshine on their face,” he said. “I want to make learning fun.”
After the applause died down, the 11-year-old joined his peers around the classroom’s projection screen. There, they watched another St. Petersburg resident get sworn in: Ken Welch, the city’s first Black mayor.
As Welch gave his inaugural address on Thursday afternoon, students in nearly two dozen schools tuned in to witness a historic event.
For students at Melrose, the ceremony and class election they planned around the inauguration were particularly poignant. Mayor Welch, 57, attended the same school when he was a kid. Back then, the school was still segregated and only Black children could enroll.
“This is a significant moment for many reasons,” Welch said during his address Thursday. The Melrose students kept their eyes glued to the screen. “It represents the breaking of another barrier.”
Natalie El Amrani, the fifth grade teacher at Melrose who organized the viewing, got teary-eyed while watching. Welch visited her classroom late last year, and she said the significance of this election was not lost on her students.
“My students speak about it all the time. Before Mayor Welch ever won, we researched his life, we talked about his life,” El Amrani said after Thursday’s ceremony. “He’s just someone who truly inspires our scholars. This is something we want them to remember for the rest of their lives.”
In the days leading up to Thursday’s historic inauguration and the Melrose class election, El Amrani said students handed out campaign flyers and gave speeches about their visions for the future of Melrose: things like starting a “friendship club” to help fight off loneliness, and setting up peer support groups for students having trouble at home.
But they also touched on some of the same points that Welch had in his own campaign — a need for affordable housing, and building inclusive communities.
“They’re fifth graders, but they can tell you about life,” El Amrani said. “This classroom is about more than just reading and writing.”
When Welch concluded his speech Thursday, the room of fifth graders erupted in applause.
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Sitting at his desk, Travis tossed his head back before bringing his hands to his face and smiling. He said he wants to follow in Welch’s footsteps — but to go even further.
“I’m going to start with mayor, and then go for governor, and then president,” Travis said. “It’s like building blocks. I want to achieve what he did, and go beyond.”