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Obama Academy opens in Pittsburgh

By Marissa Rosenbaum
On April 29, 2010

  • The former Frick Pittsburgh changed its name to Barack Obama Academy in December. The school shares a building with Schenley High School until 2012 where it will finish merging into one. Marissa Rosenbaum

Although President Obama has been in office for less than two years, he has already made a lasting impression in Pittsburgh.Formerly known as Pittsburgh Frick/Pittsburgh IB, the international magnet school located in the East Side changed its name to the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies in December.

"The students wanted to name their school after someone they know and can relate to," said Wayne Walters, principal of Pittsburgh Obama. "They said, 'We want to name the school after someone we believe in and is well respected in the international community.' People view him not just as America's president, but the world's president."

Pittsburgh Frick was formerly a traditional middle school, hosting grades 6-8. However, when the Pittsburgh school board closed down the former Pittsburgh Schenley - its sister school that included grades 9-12 - in 2008, Pittsburgh Frick was selected as one of the schools to host grades 6-12.

But combining the schools involved more than just increased enrollment. Rather, the entire school had to change, from its location to its name. According to Walters, they could not keep the same name and were required to form a collaborative committee of parents, community members and students to discuss potential names. The 15-member committee included four students, whose voices, Walters said, really came out during the meeting.

"Originally, parents and other members brought up names historic to Pittsburgh - Carnegie, Heinz, etc. But the students really wanted a name that they knew. They said, 'we don't know these people; we know of them. But with Obama, we were there,'" Walters said.

Involving the students is a policy when renaming a schoool, according to Pittsburgh Public Schools senior manager of public relations Ebony Pugh.

"If students are part of the process and participate, they are part of the change," Pugh said.

Obama had a huge influence on the students' academic program. Since Pittsburgh Obama specializes in international studies, with courses in German, French, Spanish and Japanese, the school is especially involved in world politics. During the elections, the students continuously discussed the potential candidates. When Obama was elected president, the school watched the inauguration together.

"This election involved the most active engagement with the youth that I have ever seen before with students that age. Since technology has changed the visibility of the candidates, they really spoke to the youth in a way that has never been done before," Walters said.

Although the students were the ones who strongly support the name, Walters said their voices were echoed by their family members.

"The parents realized that it was important that they have their voice. They realized it was about their educational experiences and them creating their legacy," Walters said.

After the committee meeting in November, the group submitted Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente and Andy Warhol to the three-member committee, who then submitted their vote to the school board. Obama was the recommendation to the school board.

Pugh said that a school must be renamed after a geographical location or a historical person. If not available, then a distinigushed person, living or deceased, is an option.

"Obama has historical significance now, however," Pugh said. "His campaign and his becoming the first black president is a historical accomplishment."

Although Walters said more than the majority of the students voted to name the school after Obama and the board voted unanimously, there were still some concerns with the name. Some students did not understand the policy to change names and wanted to keep Schenley, but some students were hesitant because Obama has not finished his presidential term.

"There were some students who did a lot of forecasting since he is so new, like what if he ends up being a horrible president? But the other students said that the fact that he is president of the United States in 2010 is a huge accomplishment already," Walters said.

The challenges did not just end with the name, however. The next thing the school had to decide was its mascot and colors. But according to Walters, this decision was left solely with the students.

"What I think doesn't matter. This is what the student government is elected for," Walters said.

First, the students decided to pick a name. After debating between the Olympians, the Boas (Barack Obama Academy), the Eagles and the Spartans, the students voted that they would be the Barack Obama Eagles.

"They wanted something to represent them taking it to new heights. Although this is definitely a symbol of justice and freedom in America, this is also an international symbol," Walter said. "If you look to other countries, you will see that the eagle has been used for years to represent the same thing."

The colors were a lot easier; purple, black and silver, since purple represents royalty.

With their new name, mascot and colors, the Barack Obama Academy has finished their new school celebrations - well almost, that is. Since the students who were attending Schenley Pittsburgh get to continue attending until they graduate, Obama Pittsburgh will add a grade each year, having their first senior class in two years.

The icing on the cake, Walters said, would be to have Obama as the graduation speaker for the first graduation class in 2012.

"That would be their dream for them to have the opportunity for the president to be the person who sends them into life," Walters said.

As they wait for their new school sign to come in, they are eager to get their first batch of school gear on Thursday. Walters will wear them proudly.

"It's a sense of pride. [The students] are change agents and they are willing to make the steps to make the world a better place," Walters said. "What the president represents will be source of inspiration for achieving their dreams as well. Anything is possible and the sky is the limit.

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