Young students reflect on growing up with Obama as president

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As President Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office for a second time, the country is once again examining his impact as a leader. In some schools across the country, educators still look to Obama as a role model for their young students to look up to.

At Friendship Woodridge Elementary and Middle School in Northeast D.C., eighth grader Parker Wilson remembers Obama’s first victory in 2008.

“On his first term when he first got elected, honestly, I did care but I didn’t know the importance,” Wilson said of his time as a fourth grader. “I thought there were other black presidents. But over the course of the years, I realized ‘Wow, he’s the first black president,’ and that motivated me a lot in school.”

Wilson and some of his classmates spoke to theGrio’s Todd Johnson about growing up with an African-American as president.

“My teachers would just always tell me ‘if [Obama] can, you can,'” said Heniaya Moton. “If [Obama] can be a risk taker and want to run for president, you can be an astronaut or do whatever you want to do.”

The student’s eighth grade english and social studies teacher Langston Tingling-Clemmons said he often references the president when he is trying to encourage his students to behave in the classroom or to strengthen their focus on assignments.

It’s a luxury he enjoys and something he didn’t think would be possible as a “teaching tool.”

“It was more like, ‘if Martin Luther King was alive, maybe he’d be president,'” Tingling-Clemmons said of what he heard from his teachers when he was growing up. “Today, we can’t expect Obama to change everything in the world, but it’s great to be able to point to someone who is real and tangible to my students.”

The ‘boost’ Obama’s presidency may or may not give students in the classroom is far from scientific. The ‘research’ is more tangential than anything – students claiming they’re motivated by a black president could certainly be motivated by a variety of other things or other people.

The ‘achievement gap’ for students of color persists and education experts consistently point to both socioeconomic and under-resourced schools as factors to explain why. The question of Obama’s impact on young students achievement levels is a complicated one – but worth exploring says Carlos McCray, an associate professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education.

“We can observe what’s going on with black students over the last four years and even eight years…but what about an entire generation of African-American students who did their schooling under an an administration headed by a black man?,” McCray asks. “I think not only do we need to ask how our students perceive this moment, but we also need to ask how this moment has changed the perceptions of those who are educating Black students. I think it is a crucial question on a symbolic and substantive level.”

Hard work and respect are two words you’ll hear a lot from teachers and staff at Friendship’s Woodridge school. And there’s a consistent effort to reference Obama as an example for leadership.

“I think them hearing that here at Woodridge everyday and then seeing that from a president and seeing that the harder he works, the better it gets,” said Rictor Craig, Woodridge’s principal.  said. “I think that definitely resonates and it just makes sense and ties in what we’re trying to establish here at school on a day to day basis.”

Obama’s second inauguration coincides this year with the Martin Luther King national holiday.

Follow theGrio’s Todd Johnson on Twitter @rantoddj