Among the thousands of spectators in Washington, D.C., attending President Barack Obama’s second inaugural will be 19 students and two teachers from a small high school in downtown Baton Rouge.
Most of these students from the Mentorship Academy, a charter school that started in 2010, have never flown in an airplane, much less visited the nation’s capital.
They are participating in the Smithsonian Institution’s Student Travel program Jan. 19-22 in Washington. Each day is planned out, full of trips to landmarks and museums, as well as social activities with high school student from across the nation. And then, of course, there’s the inauguration itself Jan. 21 and an accompanying formal ball.
Shana Watson, who teaches U.S. history, and Brendan O’Kelly, who teaches civics, say that in April, when they were planning for the current school year, they wanted to find an activity that would bring their related subjects to life.
“Let’s do something fun but relevant,” Watson recalled saying.
They settled on a class trip to the nation’s capital.
“It’s civics in action,” O’Kelly said.
O’Kelly said that when he was a junior at a high school in Dallas, his teacher took him on a trip to Washington, D.C. It made a lasting impression.
“It was just incredible. That’s the Constitution in this glass case and there’s the Bill of Rights,” he said. “It’s not just freedom of speech. Someone actually wrote it down. You get to actually see it.”
Now, in Baton Rouge as part of the Teach For America teacher placement program, O’Kelly is recreating that formative experience.
“To be doing with students we’re teaching? That’s just incredible to me,” O’Kelly said. “And none of us have ever seen an inauguration before.”
Watson, a Baton Rouge native, has visited the District of Columbia several times herself, but expects this trip to be special.
“I just want to see their faces,” she said. “Instead of paying attention to the memorials, I’m going to be watching the kids.”
These trips, however, aren’t cheap. Throughout this fall, the students have held a series of fundraisers — dances, a car wash, selling smoothies — and talked up family and friends to raise the money to go. They ended up raising more than $8,500 and are still trying to raise more money to help pay for some uncovered expenses.
Ninth-grader Phoenix Thomas, 15, recalled a dance where he sold soft drinks.
“It was kind of easy,” he said. “I challenged them to dance.”
After a while of dancing, the students grew thirsty and headed to the drink counter, he said.
Despite the possibility that Mitt Romney would be the president-elect taking the oath of office, several Mentorship Academy students said that possibility didn’t occur to them.
“I thought it would be cool to see Barack Obama because I knew he was going to win,” ninth-grader Kamryn Jackson, 14, said.
Several of the students get excited when told that they may meet Obama in person at the Smithsonian’s inaugural ball.
Thomas, a history buff who relishes the story he’ll tell his children one day, already has a short speech ready for when he meets the president.
Fellow student Isiah Harbor, 15, a sophomore, has a different plan.
He’s going to get his picture taken with the president. Then he plans to send it to a former teacher whose husband has met Obama while she never has, despite waiting in line for a long time to see him.
The students all are supposed to bring cameras — not just cellphones because batteries die, Watson said — and use the pictures they take for an audio-visual presentation they plan to present upon their return to the rest of the students attending their school.
One thing the students are not looking forward to is the cold weather in Washington. Thomas recalls his only trip north, to Kentucky, during wintertime.
“I was so cold, I just wanted to stay in bed,” he said. “I had all the blankets I could on me.”