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West Hall students get hands-on learning in DC
Students from West Hall Middle School joined hundreds of thousands of others Sunday afternoon on the National Mall in Washington for the We Are One concert event. Students from the school are in the nation’s capital for today’s presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. - photo by CHRIS TURPIN
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WASHINGTON — More than a dozen West Hall Middle School students are spending this week in the Washington area learning about the history of America’s civil rights movement and our nation’s progressive leaders.

Through the D.C.-based Close Up Foundation, 13 West Hall Middle students are participating in a five-day workshop with dozens of other middle school students from Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and New Jersey.

The animated young educators who work for the foundation use Washington as a setting to teach young Americans about the nation’s past, its most pressing current issues and the principles of democracy. West Hall Middle social studies teacher Chris Turpin said since the Close Up Foundation was established in 1971, it has brought about 675,000 students to Washington for the workshops.

"Rather than being a tour group, it’s like using D.C. as a classroom," Turpin said.

The local students participating won an essay contest disguised as a homework assignment.

Turpin said students had no idea they were competing to win a weeklong trip to D.C. when they were writing essays on characteristics of a good leader.

Since the students arrived Saturday evening, they have been among thousands crowding the National Mall on Sunday for the "We are One" concert and have visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and the White House.

Joan Armour, assistant principal of West Hall Middle, is chaperoning students on the trip and said students got a kick out of visiting the White House on Sunday, where they learned it takes about 8,000 people to move out the old president and prepare for the incoming president.

"(Students) said they actually saw some people moving things out of the White House," Armour said.

Eighth-grader Haley Haynes said she’s learned through the group workshops about the injustices that plagued minority communities.

"I didn’t know about all the pain and suffering the U.S. went through," Haley said. "And it wasn’t just the South, it was the entire nation. African Americans didn’t have certain jobs or didn’t get to go to certain places that white people did."

Haley said she’s glad she learned more about the United States’ civil rights movement before she spent the morning watching President-elect Barack Obama, the nation’s first minority president, get sworn into the most powerful position in the country.

Armour said she feels West Hall Middle students’ participation in the workshop has expanded their tolerance for other people’s ideas, some of which may conflict with their own.

"If people are worried about the future, all they need to do is to spend one day with this group and that puts all your fears to rest," Armour said.

Turpin said the students have behaved beautifully on the trip, and haven’t griped about the 3:45 muster this morning.

"They’re cool with that," Turpin said.

The students will be piling onto the Washington Metro before sun up to get to the 11:30 a.m. inauguration ceremony. Turpin said Rep. Nathan Deal doled out 15 inaugural ceremony tickets so Hall County’s brightest can witness history for themselves.

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