Obama's words lift audience at a troubled school

  • By Jay Field
  • January 21, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

At Harper High School in Englewood, yesterday began like any other day.
A Dr. Pepper delivery truck hummed in the parking lot.
Teenagers trudged through slush to make the eight o’clock bell.
And Kenyatta Stansberry Butler, the school’s principal, made her morning stop at McDonald’s.
Of course, the day was anything but normal for this young, African American principal, her almost entirely black student body and the rest of America.
“I think everybody is just excited. It’s a different kind of feeling in the building today. It is,” said Stansberry Butler.

During a morning computer class, seniors wrote letters to incoming President Barack Obama, as CNN’s pre-inaugural coverage played on a large overhead screen.

"I have lived in Chicago the Englewood community my whole life and hope someday become a carpenter," wrote senior Stephen Reed. "You have inspiration to me because you let me see that anything is possible for a black man living on the south side of Chicago."

Some students say Obama will more directly affect their lives.

“I thought about me going to college and being able to pay for it. That’s the first thing I thought about,” said senior Elisha Briscoe, who believes Obama’s improbable ascendance will open some important doors for her.
Many at Harper, a struggling school that enrolls more than 1,000 students, do not continue on to college.

Only a third of freshmen are on track to graduate in five years and just four percent of Harper students meet or exceed state standards.
These and other longstanding struggles moved Chicago Public Schools to launch an ambitious plan last year to overhaul the school.
Harper is what’s known in Chicago these days as a turnaround school.
Among other things, there’s more support from the Board of Education, including efforts to strengthen the curriculum and an emphasis on creating a culture of discipline and responsibility.
But these interventions, while helpful, don’t carry the symbolic power and motivational potential of tables of low-income, African-American students, watching a black man place his hand on the bible and swear to uphold the Constitution.
“I truly believe that all students should be watching it,” said Stansberry Butler.
One Harper student actually traveled to Washington to attend the inauguration, along with a few teachers.
At around 10:30, the rest of the school community traveled to the auditorium and the cafeteria to witness history together.
Inside the lunchroom, packed tables of teenagers acted, well, like kids in a lunchroom.
They joked, laughed and talked together loudly.
Soon, however, a sense of wonder began to creep into the room.
It started when the two Obama girls, beaming, took their seats on the platform in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Once Michelle Obama appeared, the room fell largely silent.
Kids watched as President George W. Bush entered to “Hail to the Chief” for the last time.
Then, a roar, as Barack Obama’s tall visage approached the top of the Capitol steps. The room erupted again as Obama was introduced and a third time as he placed his hand on Lincoln’s inaugural bible, took his oath, and became the country's 44th president.

The crowd at Harper grew quiet as Obama began his address.
"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."
As the President spoke these words near the end of his address, Natasha Champion, clad in a red Harper t-shirt and a black apron, nodded her head.
“There’s no words that can express how happy I am,” said Champion, who works the school’s lunch line.
She said she was sure her mother was watching on TV at home, most likely with tears rolling down her cheeks.
 “Took us a long time to get here. And I’m glad we’re finally here. This is just the beginning, though.”