President Barack Obama said during a whirlwind trip to Nashville on Thursday that school districts across the country should follow the city's "simple but powerful" career academies model for high schools.
"I want to encourage more high schools to do what you're doing," Obama told the crowd of about 1,600 people packed inside the gymnasium at McGavock High School.
But the president, while praising Metro Schools' innovations and singling out a student who benefited from them, also had another mission: comforting a grieving family.
Obama met privately with the family of Kevin Barbee, a McGavock sophomore who was shot and killed by a fellow McGavock student Tuesday night.
"He was very sympathetic and sincere," Alicia Mahdi, Barbee's mother, said in subdued tones later Thursday. "I really appreciate him taking his time out to meet with us and offer his condolences."
Obama didn't mention his talk with the mother during his 24-minute speech. But he acknowledged the tragedy briefly.
"I wanted to come here today because I've heard great things about this high school and all of you," he said. "But I also recognize that the last couple of days have been hard and a test of people's spirits. Some of you lost a good friend, so I wanted you to know that Michelle and I have been praying for all of you in the community."
The president, who also met privately with former Vice President Al Gore, steered clear of discussing gun control in Tennessee, where neither he nor that issue is popular politically. The state's two Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and the seven GOP House members all stayed away from McGavock, while the two Democratic congressmen, Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen, were both on hand.
Cooper, who represents Nashville, and Mayor Karl Dean, another Democrat, greeted Obama when Air Force One landed at Berry Field Air National Guard Base at 3:41 p.m. After shaking hands with Obama, they climbed in the presidential limousine and sped down an empty Interstate 40 and Briley Parkway to the high school.
Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, wasn't on the tarmac. Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor had planned to greet Obama, but delays in the president's schedule made a meeting impossible because Haslam had to head out of state for economic development meetings.
Protesters and supporters
Outside McGavock, a group of tea party activists and others opposed to Obama gathered to protest his visit. They held signs and banners criticizing Obama and yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags, which have become a symbol of the tea party movement.
A more supportive group waved signs nearby. When the president and his entourage got to the high school, he met with local leaders, including Renata Soto, executive director of Conexion Americas, a Nashville organization that helps Latino families acclimate to life here.
After the private meeting, Soto tweeted: "Hate to brag. But let me. I just had a short private moment with President Obama. Immigration reform ... he said 'we will get it done.' "
As students, teachers, political activists and others cheered and captured the moment with their phones and tablets, Obama applauded Metro Schools Director Jesse Register's proposal to fund prekindergarten classes for all 4-year-olds whose parents want that option by 2018. The expansion plan would kick in this fall with classes for 500 new students, costing an estimated $2 million.
The president also offered up a new national competition. He said it should inspire other districts to adopt programs like the career academies, which group students by their career interests and form partnerships with private industry for donations of equipment, money and speakers. Backed by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Academies of Nashville seek to provide real-world skills and hands-on learning.
Obama noted that one of McGavock's academies focuses on aviation and transportation.
"That's pretty cool," he joked. "I did not get my own plane until I was 47 years old."
When he noted that Air Force One is "a rental" that he has to give back, someone yelled, "Four more years!"
Obama said the nation has to "make it easier for folks to work their way into the middle class." He said four steps are key: creating more jobs; training people to do those jobs; ensuring a living wage, and "guaranteeing every young person access to a world-class education."
He also told the story of Sara Santiago, who graduated from McGavock in 2012. After experiences with teachers who told her she wouldn't succeed, Santiago found support in a McGavock broadcasting class that, in Obama's words, "helped her discover this passion for filmmaking." Today, the 20-year-old is a student at Volunteer State Community College majoring in communications. She wants to become a video editor.
And she had the president saying her name.
"It's just unbelievable," Santiago said. "Where I came from and where I am now. It's something I never imagined."
When he was through talking about Santiago, McGavock and education, Obama waded into the crowd for a few hugs, handshakes and photos. Then he was back in the limousine, off to the airport and up the detachable stairs onto Air Force One, which flew out at 5:55 p.m., a little more than two hours after it touched down.
Staff writers Adam Tamburin, Jessica Bliss, Duane W. Gang, Brian Haas, Tony Gonzalez, Brian Wilson and Chas Sisk contributed to this report.
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