APRIL SMOCK, the humanities department chairwoman at Danville's Athenian School, and 20 high school students rose before dawn this morning, put on warm winter clothing, and walked two miles to the National Mall in Washington D.C.

They will wait with millions of others for a chance to witness history today as Barack Obama is sworn in as the first African-American president.

"As a teacher, I realize that the opportunity to provide our students with an experience that so clearly allows them to see and feel the passion Americans have about the election process has the potential to spark a lifetime of passion for what it means to be a citizen," Smock said.

She decided to take students to the inauguration in September, two months before the election. In partnership with World Strides, an organization that runs student trips to the capital, she was able to plan a five-day trip that includes visits to national landmarks as well as several inaugural events.

"I wanted this trip to be for kids who had never been to Washington, D.C. and who had a genuine interest in the political process," Smock said. Sophomores, juniors and seniors wrote essays about why they wanted to go, and 20 students were selected.

"As a Mexican-American, I believe the opportunity to attend the inauguration would give me the chance to bring hope to the Athenian community and my neighborhood in Oakland. I could let them know that if you work hard and believe, you will succeed," sophomore Sandra Loyola wrote.


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Sandra's classmate Tina Solvic wrote: "For once, I want to live through, understand, and remember an election. I want to be able to look back on my teen-age years and know that I paid attention to my surroundings and the political climate of the time."

The students arrived in Washington on Saturday in order to attend the week's events, including Sunday's kickoff at the Lincoln Memorial and an inaugural ball. The group also will tour the Washington Monument, Arlington Cemetery, the American History Museum, the Holocaust Museum and the Capitol Building.

Nobel Freeman, one of Smock's former students, is currently an aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and will give them a tour.

"I really want them to feel the excitement of the inaugural week, to absorb the energy, and to take pride in being an American citizen," Smock said.

Elementary-school students at Carden West, a private school in Pleasanton, won't be at the inauguration, but they had their voices heard nonetheless.

Lisa Harp's students recently read letters they had written to President-elect Obama on Campbell Brown's program on CNN. The students expressed their concerns on subjects that range from pets to the Israeli situation.

Fourth-grader Kylee Wagner shared the nicknames she has been called and then asked, "How do you like being called No Drama Obama?"

Sixth-grader Mario Porteo asked, "What will you do about the immigrants? I want to know because I am Latino and people from my country, which is Guatemala, come here as immigrants."

To view the video, visit www.cnn.com/video/#/video/politics/2009/01/05/natpkg.dear.mr.president.cnn?iref=videosearch

Reach Amy Moellering at ajmoellering@comcast.net