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Obama expected to talk with Chicago teens about challenges they face

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 10:04 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — In addition to a speech at a South Side high school on Friday, President Barack Obama is expected to meet privately with 20 young black men there and discuss the challenges of growing up in a rough neighborhood.

White House officials asked Principal Antonio Ross of Hyde Park Academy High School to suggest students the president could meet with. Ross said he recommended teens in a mentoring and behavioral skills program called Becoming a Man.

“These students are very honest, very open, very opinionated and passionate,” Ross said, adding that Obama will “get a real dose of what it feels like, at least from their perspective, of what it feels like growing up in the city of Chicago right now as a teenager.”

Obama, coming to Chicago as part of a three-state tour following his State of the Union speech, will address up to 700 people in the Hyde Park Academy gymnasium, with students, mostly seniors, taking up about 300 of those spots, Ross said. The rest will include parents, community members and public officials, he said. The event is not open to the public.

“We have a lot of students who are not doing well and may need the president’s remarks for motivation,” Ross said.

The president will discuss proposals for “strengthening the economy for the middle class and those striving to get there,” White House officials said.

He is also expected to touch upon the subject of gun violence in the wake of the slaying of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old honor student, at a park a mile from Obamas’ home in the Kenwood neighborhood.

Hadiya’s parents, Nathaniel Pendleton and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, were guests Tuesday of the president and first lady at the State of the Union speech.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said he had met with Cowley-Pendleton in Washington and asked permission to name his gun-safety legislation after Hadiya. A Kirk spokesman said he understood Hadiya’s parents to be “receptive” to the idea and added: “We will work with them on it.”

Kirk, who returned to work Jan. 3 nearly a year after he suffered a major stroke, said that one of his top priorities this year is to pass the bill.

Hadiya Pendleton was killed Jan. 29. The next day, Kirk and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced a bill to make gun trafficking a federal crime and to end so-called straw purchases of guns in order to dry up the supply of guns to what he termed “dangerous drug gangs.” A straw purchase occurs when someone buys a gun on behalf of another person, usually someone who could not pass a federal background check.

Outside of Hyde Park Academy on Wednesday, school officials geared up for the president’s visit by making repairs to the building and sweeping the sidewalk.

The Hyde Park high school — whose alums include aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock — focuses on college and career preparation but sees gang and drug activity in the area. Many of the students are from the Woodlawn and Englewood neighborhoods, Ross said, and have felt the effects of crime and unemployment.

As students spilled out of the school, many were excited about Friday’s event, saying they hoped to shake the president’s hand or ask him a question. Others were upset that more students were not invited, but said they hope the president’s words resonate with the crowd.

“The city does have a really big problem,” said Dujuan Williams, 17, a junior at the high school, who said he lost a friend to gun violence earlier this month. “I hope the (president’s) message will be, ‘Stay in school, graduate and succeed.’ ”

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