Duane W. Gang, The Tennessean
President Barack Obama pushed his plan for expanding early childhood education during his visit to McGavock High School this afternoon and praised Nashville and Tennessee for the educational gains both have made.
"I wanted to come here today because I heard great things about this high school and all of you," Obama said to a boisterous crowd in the school's auditorium.
"If Nashville can bring schools, teachers, business and parents together for the sake of our young people, then other places can," Obama added.
Nashville was the president's final stop in a two-day, post-State of the Union tour of the nation. Earlier Thursday, he visited General Electric's Waukesha Gas Engines plant near Milwaukee, Wis., and on Wednesday toured a steel mill near Pittsburgh and a Costco in Maryland.
He is pushing a minimum wage hike, a new type of retirement savings account, job-driven training partnerships and a series of education reforms, including the expansion of pre-kindergarten.
Air Force One touched down at Berry Field at 3:41 p.m. and a presidential motorcade whisked the president to McGavock. He met briefly with former Vice President Al Gore and the family of Kevin Barbee, a 15-year-old student who was killed earlier this week.
Obama entered the McGavock High School auditorium to a loud ovation at 4:49 p.m. after the school's student body president, Ronald Elliott, introduced him.
Obama recognized Elliott, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, Democratic U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen and Gore. He then mentioned the student struck down on Tuesday night.
"I also recognize the past couple of days have been hard. Some of you have lost a good friend," Obama said. "It has been heartbreaking."
He said he and the First Lady are praying for the community.
Police say Barbee was shot in Hermitage by his classmate Kaemon Robinson, 17. Robinson was taken into custody and charged with criminal homicide hours later.
Kevin's mother Alicia Barbee was surprised that Obama would include her son's death in his remarks.
"I'm grateful that he will bring it up," she said by telephone before president's visit.
Alicia Barbee said she hopes Kevin's death will serve as a reminder of "all the other kids who have lost their lives to gun violence."
Witnesses told police that Robinson was playing with a pistol in an apartment on Burning Tree Drive when it fired, striking Barbee in the face. Barbee was pronounced dead at Summit Medical Center.
Officials sent grief counselors into the school and they worked alongside White House officials preparing for Obama's visit today.
Metro Schools Director Jesse Register said before the speech that he wouldn't be surprised if Obama addressed acknowledged Kevin's death.
"Hopefully this was accidental, but young people don't need access to guns like that," Register said. "I think we need to be very introspective about what we allow in this country and what we don't."
Education, though, was the main theme of the president's remarks at McGavock.
Tennessee and McGavock were selected for today's speech in part because of the education reform efforts underway here.
Tennessee was the first state to win Obama's Race to the Top competition in 2010. And McGavock is among the top schools in the state for student growth and has combined college-preparatory courses with work- and project-based learning.
Obama said the nation must guarantee "every young person access to a world-class education."
He said there have been successes, citing rising graduation rates and declining dropout rates. He specifically praised Tennessee and Nashville for the efforts underway here. That includes proposals for expanding pre-K in Metro schools.
"You have made huge strides in helping young people learn the skills they need for a new economy," Obama said.
In Nashville, Register considers pre-K a priority and has outlined a plan to expand the program through regional hubs and over the next three or four years offer it to every child whose parents want a seat.
"We're very aggressive in supporting and pushing for universal pre-K," Register said before the speech. "When you are in a large, diverse urban school system with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged children, it's a no brainer."
Cohen, the Democratic congressman from Memphis, agreed. He said it is important for the president to visit Tennessee and both vocational training and pre-k should get expanded.
"The president is right," Cohen said. "We need trained workers for the 21s century. It is proven that pre-K is important. Tennessee is woefully behind in funding."
The debate continues on whether to expand the state-funded pre-K program for low-income families. State lawmakers have said that won't likely happen this year. They are awaiting final results on a "gold standard" multi-year study by Vanderbilt University.
So far, that study says preschooling has a big impact on readying children for kindergarten, but academic gains fade quickly. Researchers hope to learn more about other long-term effects of preschooling, such as attendance, graduation rates and classroom behavior.
Obama, inspired by what he called "simple but powerful" concepts of Nashville's academies model for high schools, discussed a new competition to encourage other districts nationwide to adopt similar programs.
"I want to encourage more high schools to do what you're doing," Obama said.
The chamber of commerce-backed Academies of Nashville, adopted in 2009 for Metro's comprehensive high schools, seeks to provide real-world skills and hands-on learning to classroom curriculum.
The model includes corporate partners. McGavock includes some of Metro's highest profile partners, including CMA and Ryman Hospitality Properties, formerly known as Gaylord Entertainment. Tracks there include aviation and transportation, health science and law, digital design and communication and hospitality.
Obama credited the Academies' program at McGavock with helping boost its graduation rate by 22 percent over the past decade. He did not elaborate further on details of the program, but said his administration has started to roll it out.
In the lead up to the president's arrival, hundreds of people poured into the McGavock gym. Many sat on bleachers, while others stood in front of the podium where the president would give his remarks.
In a VIP area, sat Gore, Dean, Cooper and Cohen. Others there included the actress Ashley Judd and Tennessean publisher emeritus John Siegenthaler. Cooper and Dean were among those who greeted the president and Air Force One at the airport.
Also in attendance were numerous Tennessee Democratic activists and several members of the 40-member Metro Council.
"Somebody said, 'Hey you want to come?' And I came," said Councilwoman Sandra Moore. "It's great for the students to see that the president has come and made them feel very special today.
Nashville businessman Bill Freeman, an Obama fundraiser, said it was exciting to have the president in Tennessee. "It's been a long time getting him here. We're thrilled that he's in Nashville."
Metro school board chair Cheryl Mayes noted Obama's State of the Union comments about partnering schools with businesses and colleges the concept fundamental to the district's Academies of Nashville.
"It put a positive light on what we're doing."
Behind the president stood McGavock students who said they were members of the school's honor society. High in the bleachers, McGavock students idled with anticipation.
"I can't explain the feeling," said Marie Mennefield, a 17-year-old high school junior.
In attempt to capture the moment, classmate Lapraiseya Pendleton tried to expound: "You feel honored," she said, "because this doesn't happen everywhere."
The girls marveled at the fact that McGavock, from among all the high schools in the country, rose to the president's attention. "How did we stand out from all the other schools?" Pendleton questioned.
Other Obama supports also said they felt honored to get a chance to see the president in person.
"It is always exciting to see a sitting president," said Mary Patterson, 67, of Mt. Juliet, who brought her 15-year-old nephew with her to see Obama.
Patterson, a member of the state Democratic Party executive committee, said that if she had a chance to speak with Obama, she would press him on gun control.
I would talk to him about gun violence," Patterson said. "We just had this tragedy of this young man in Hermitage. Something has to be done. I don't know what the answers are, but that is a very 'now' issue I think in this community today."
Gloria Carver, 51, of Jackson, Tenn., said she would tell the president to keep pushing forward.
"He is not just targeting one population of individuals, in my opinion," Carver said. "He is going from the children to the elderly and he is seeking to make the changes he promised he would."
But not everyone was convinced. 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 others held yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags, which have become a symbol of the Tea Party movement.
Bryan Baskin, 50, of La Vergne, said there is more to education than public schools. He said more must be done to allow school choice, such as vouchers.
"People who talk the most about being open minded are the most close minded about education," Baskin said.