As more than a million people flooded the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20 to watch Barack Obama become the first black president of the United States, many had high hopes for what he can do for education while in office–including the new president himself.
"Our schools fail too many," Obama said during his inauguration speech to a huge crowd that nodded in agreement. "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met."
Those challenges include making sure all students in America have equal access to a high-quality education, said Juan Ulloa, who traveled to the inauguration from El Centro, Calif., with his grandson to witness Obama’s inauguration.
"There is a big divide between the educated and the uneducated. And the number of uneducated is growing," he said. "We need to inspire our young people and reaffirm the importance of education. And we need to inspire our legislators to reaffirm the importance of education–education for everyone."
Marzi Branyan, 12, said the main thing she hopes Obama can do for education is to make sure all children are educated the same way. She and her mother, Roya Bauman, traveled from Greenbelt, Md., for the ceremony.
George White, who watched the swearing-in ceremony with his 12-year-old son on his shoulders, said he just hopes Obama focuses on education in general.
"We’ve all been talking a lot about the economy, but we need to focus on education in a big way, especially in Georgia," he said. White lives in Marietta, Ga. "If we want to stimulate this economy, we have to educate from kindergarten through college … and make college more accessible."
At the Bytes and Books Inaugural Ball later that night, advocates of educational technology spoke of their hopes for the Obama administration, including expanding broadband internet access for schools and homes and making lawmakers understand that education is important to economic stimulation. The ball was thrown by the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training (NCTET).
"We need to have free internet access to all students, homes, and parents," said George Lucas, filmmaker and NCTET community builder award recipient. "We need to push to advocate for free internet for schools–[including] parents, teachers, and everyone connected to schools."
Barbara Stein, senior policy analyst with the National Education Association, said there is no issue more important to the economy than education. "Education is key to economic recovery," she said.
Linda Darling-Hammond, who was Obama’s education advisor during his transition to the presidency and a recipient of NCTET’s education leadership award, said it is because education is so important to stimulating the economy that Obama spoke so urgently about it during his campaign–and the inauguration itself.
"In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned," Obama said. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act–not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids, and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place … and we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."
Obama said that while the country’s challenges might be new, the values of America have remained the same since the country began.
"Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends–hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism–these things are old. These things are true," he said.
On the National Mall, the crowd stretched nearly two miles–from the Capitol to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
The bulk of the crowd was jammed into the area between the west front of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, where people stood shoulder-to-shoulder as Obama was sworn in.
Slightly after noon on Jan. 20, Obama stood on the Capitol steps, placed his left hand on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln, and repeated the inaugural oath "to preserve, protect, and defend" a Constitution that originally defined blacks as three-fifths of a person. A deafening cheer went up.
"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed–why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath," Obama said, drawing cheers from the crowd. "So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled."
Many in the crowd hugged each other, slapped high-fives, chanted "yes we can"–Obama’s campaign slogan–and some even cried as Obama took his oath of office. Many more were simply in awe of what they were witnessing.
"This is some wonderful history, and I’m actually here to see it," said one member of the crowd.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.