Students watch inauguration, put themselves in Obama's shoes

An inauguration event at the Harlem Armory on Monday drew students too young to remember any president but Barack Obama — and others who said his presidency changed the way they see their own futures.

While most schools across the city were closed for the Martin Luther King Day, the Democracy Prep charter network convened students, parents, teachers, staff, and community members to watch Obama’s inauguration on the big screen.

Leesandra Moore brought her four daughters to the inauguration event. Her oldest is in eighth grade at Democracy Prep, and her three younger daughters were born during Obama’s first term.

Referring to her three-year-old, Moore said, “I wanted her to experience it so she can say that she was there. She doesn’t understand race … but she will grow up in a world that does talk about race. Right now it just seems to her like, all these people are making a big fuss, what are they making a fuss over?”

Megan Kenslea, a second-grade teacher, said her students don’t remember not having a black president. But she said they might not recognize inequalities that still exist.

“Listening to [Obama] talk about how every child has the same opportunities — especially as a teacher, I see that not all kids have the same opportunities,” she said. “It depends on the education they receive.”

Surveying the talkative crowd, Democracy Prep Chief of Staff Katie Duffy said “We hope our kids see the community that supports them. We also wanted to celebrate that.”

The event wasn’t all about watching events taking place in Washington, D.C. Students were also called to take action at home. Democracy Prep encouraged students to send pre-printed postcards to policymakers with their recommendations for how to improve schools, then provided local volunteer opportunities during the afternoon.

“One is to Ms. Obama, another to the president, and another to Governor Cuomo,” Democracy Prep middle schooler Dave Cassell said as he flipped through the postcards. “The point of these is to show what we think about the education values we have today. We write about how we feel about these issues.”

Postcard prompts included: “If I were president I would improve school safety by…” “If I were governor I would improve New York’s schools by…” “If I were First Lady I would help kids get healthy by…”

Another postcard, addressed to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and focused on charter schools, began, “We were disappointed to hear you say that you didn’t want to grow the number of public charter schools if you were elected mayor.” Quinn made the statement during first speech on education policy last week.

Tiffany Frith, a senior at Democracy Prep’s high school, said Obama’s election in 2008 prompted her to think more seriously about her role in public policy.

“Obama is a role model for me,” she said. “Past presidents weren’t African-American, and a lot of people thought there wouldn’t be one. Now there is, and that shows me that if I want to be president, I can be the first female president and an African-American president.”

Democracy Prep has pushed students to participate in politics since the network launched its first school in 2006. For Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, which fell on a school day, the network hosted an event attended by 34 other schools. More recently, in the lead-up to the 2012 election, the network dispatched students to encourage Harlem residents to vote.

Elvira Pocorni got a call from Democracy Prep on Friday informing her of the event. Her grandmother, Minerva Dakriet, insisted that Elvira and her siblings attend, even though they no longer live in the city.

“I didn’t think we would see a black president in this lifetime, and we saw it twice,” Dakriet said. Turning to watch her grandchildren view Obama’s speech, Minerva noted how much work they have ahead of them.

“Obama’s paving the way for them, but they’ve got to study,” she said. “You can have a black president, but if you don’t do anything you will not make it.”