Kids at Barack Obama Elementary have known only one president. Many fear the next.
Overnight their world had shifted, and now the students at Barack Obama Elementary had a pressing question for principal Megan Ashworth: Would the name of their school change?
Would they, the Maryland kids wondered, attend Donald Trump Elementary School?
That wouldn’t happen Ashworth assured them on Nov. 9, the day after the election. She assured them again in December when that question came up during a class she visited. And she will assure them once more, if needed, after Friday when Trump officially replaces Obama.
For those who attend and live around the Prince George’s County school named for the country’s first African American president, the shift in power will not only evoke intense emotions — it will also cut at their identity. This is Obama territory, one of the nation’s most affluent, majority-black communities, where residents speak of the 44th commander in chief as they would a relative.
Inside the school, the students, almost all of them African American, walk past trophy cases filled with books about the first family and look up to staff members who wear T-shirts that read “We Rock at Barack.”
Outside the school, along roads where empty swaths of land give way to clusters of big homes, people praise Obama’s policies, even as Prince George’s has been slower to recover from the recession than most places in the Washington region.
For eight years here, there has been a shared sense that no matter what happened, the man who occupied the White House cared about them. Now, that is about to change, and the trepidation about what Trump might do runs deep.
Already, an office manager at a church near the school has been fielding calls from friends worried she will lose her health insurance. A mother of two has questioned how the college educated, African American sons she raised could have voted for Trump. And the students in a third grade class have scribbled their fears, with occasional misspelled words, in journals.
“I feel okay because I know God is always with me at all times,” a boy named Iyan wrote. “But at the same time terrefied [sic] because Donald J. Trump can do anything.”
Like many children their age, they have heard his name slip off their parents’ lips their entire lives. But unlike their peers, they have studied his polices in-depth as part of a class research project, so words such as “preexisting condition” roll with ease out of their young mouths.
On a morning when Permenter asked the class about the impact of the Affordable Care Act, hands shot up. A girl sitting cross-legged in her chair, bounced up and down, eager to speak. Her classmate Dylan went first.
“The Affordable Care Act was a law that President Obama made for people that didn’t have any insurance,” he said. A benefit, he said, is “you can now keep your children on your health insurance until they turn 26.”
“Listen to what Dylan said — ‘up until the age of 26,’ ” Permenter said. “Think of how that impacts you. Take the discussion further. How old are you? Think in the future. How does that now impact you and what happens if it disappears?”
“That could affect me,” one boy offered, “because I have asthma, and once I get out of college I may not be able, if the new president takes away the Affordable Care Act, then I may not be able to get insurance.”
The class discussion flowed in that same way — from the broad to the personal — as they spoke about Obama’s record in other areas.
The principal sat in on the class that day. Ashworth said her immediate reaction after the election was to avoid encouraging students to discuss the results in class. But then teacher after teacher came to her to say they needed to talk about it.
“Even the kindergarten teachers,” she said.
Now, she listened as the 31 third-graders discussed what she knew many people — adults and children — were also feeling. Some of the students had cried the morning after the election. Others had asked their parents if they would have to move out of the country.
“You all have a voice,” Ashworth told them. “You need to use that voice in a positive way to share the thoughts you shared today with others. There’s no need to flee and be sad. . . . We need to remember Barack Obama left us with a lot of phenomenal work that will impact you and will impact your children when you get older, impact your families, and that’s important.”
When she finished talking, a girl raised her hand.
“Ms. Ashworth, I have a question for you,” she said. “Were you also mad that Donald Trump won?”
Schools are often a reflection of the community, and Barack Obama Elementary is no exception.
The school opened in 2010 to accommodate growth in Upper Marlboro, which is located 21 miles from the White House. Of its 700 pre-K through fifth-graders, 97 percent are African American and more than 60 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Prince George’s County is nationally renowned for its concentration of black upper-middle class families, but the recession hit many of its residents hard, and the recovery has taken longer than many other places. Foreclosures rates in the county in recent months were double the national average, and the foreclosure rate for the Zip code where the school is located was even higher, according to data from real estate research firm CoreLogic.
“In the rest of the country the flow of distress has been declining in the last few years,” Sam Khater, a CoreLogic economist, said. “That’s not what is happening in Prince George’s County and this Zip code.”
But ask residents here about their financial problems, and they won’t blame them on Obama, pointing instead to an inherited mess. Their votes also show an unwavering support.
An estimated 92 percent of the residents in the school’s Zip code voted for Obama in 2012, according to Catalist, a firm that collects and analyzes voter data. Vote tallies are not yet available at the Zip code level for the 2016 presidential election. But in Prince George’s County, Hillary Clinton won 89 percent of the votes, while Trump captured just 8 percent.
Two of those Trump votes came from a house across the street from the school.
The federal worker who lives there beamed as she looked at a photo of one of her sons. She raised him and his brother on her own, and they have made her proud. Her youngest is a senior in college, considering going to law school. Her oldest just graduated and is weighing his options in the legal field.
That’s why she has struggled to understand how they, as young, educated African Americans, could have voted for Trump.
“I think they will regret it,” she said. Her sons did not want to be interviewed or identified so The Post is not identifying her. “I’m so concerned with this new administration coming in, this man we elected on a platform of vitriol and hate. And I had no idea that so many people felt that way.”
Just two years ago, the street in front of her home was clogged with cars as thousands made their way to Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School, which sits next to the elementary school, to hear Obama speak during the Maryland gubernatorial campaign.
Arlene White, the office manager at a local church, didn’t make it to the school that day. But even if she’s never stood in the same room as Obama, she said she feels connected to him. She credits him with giving her what she had lost — health insurance.
In 2011, she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and in 2013, she lost her job as an administrative assistant for an IT company and, with it, the ability to see the doctor every three months for follow-up care. For a year and a half she missed those appointments. Then she signed up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
In the months since the election, White has heard from people concerned about what’s going to happen to her now. She has assured them that there is someone more powerful than Trump.
“I said, ‘I’m going to do what I’ve been doing — I’m going to trust God,’” White said. “I believe God is going to take care of me, whether I have insurance or not.”
Her pastor, she said, also reminded her and others at the church that he had already prepared them for the unknowns they now faced. The theme for this year’s Bible study is “Surviving the wilderness.”
Ashworth answered the third-grader who asked how she felt about Trump that day in Permenter’s class.
As a white woman, she knows many students wonder where she stands on the divisive issues the election has surfaced. But she relates to her students on levels that aren’t obvious. She grew up in Prince George’s, the daughter of a secretary and cigar salesman, and her husband and two stepchildren are African American.
“I was very disappointed,” Ashworth told the students. “I was sad.”
What she didn’t say was that she carries new worries now. She questions how Trump’s choice for education secretary will affect Obama Elementary and other schools across the nation. Trump has tapped charter school proponent Betsy DeVos for the position.
“What is education going to look like in the next 10 years?” Ashworth said later in her office. “Where is America going to go now?”
These concerns she keeps to herself. In the past few months, she and other adults at the school have had to comfort the grade-schoolers, and in those moments, they have made a point to tell the children that they need to give the new president a chance to lead. They have let them know they can miss Obama and support Trump.
It was a message Permenter passed on that day in class.
“You have to remember that the next person who comes into office you may agree or disagree with, but as a citizen you have a job,” she said. “We do have to respect the new president. He is our leader, but it involves all the people underneath him to make everything happen. It takes us to make things happen. So we have to work together. We have to work . . .”
“Together!” the class shouted in unison.
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