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S. Fla. students head to Washington for inauguration

When Sears D’Alemberte was 6, he enjoyed eating over his laminated plastic placemat featuring images of all the U.S. presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush.

One day, Sears looked at his father, Josh D’Alemberte, a history teacher at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, and asked why all of the presidents were white men.

Seven years later, Sears and his father will travel to Washington, D.C., to watch President Barack Obama’s inauguration for his second term.

“I’m really excited to see him because that is part of history because Obama is the first black president,” said Sears, now 13 and a seventh grader at Ransom.

Sears is one of many South Florida students who will trek to the nation’s capital to watch Obama being sworn in Monday as the nation’s 44th U.S. president. Some have tickets to the seating, others will stand shoulder to shoulder with the thousands at the National Mall. Estimates call for 600,000 to 800,000 to watch the ceremonies from the Mall.

Miami Country Day School will send 22 of its high school students to a program organized by the Close Up Foundation, a non-profit that brings students and teachers to Washington, D.C., to see the inner workings of the government.

The group left from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Thursday accompanied by Mari Conea, a U.S. history and AP teacher, and Dan Bronish, chair of the math and science department. They will be there for six days, attending political workshops and seminars, as well as attending the inauguration.

Ana Lis Garcia, 15, a sophomore at Country Day, has never been to D.C. She is excited about seeing the president, if only from afar on the National Mall.

“He’s a really cool guy,” she said. “He’s one of the most famous people in history just like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt and all those great presidents. He’s probably one of them and I want to be part of that.”

Students from Monsignor Edward Pace High School, Doctors Charter School and the MAST Academy in Miami-Dade, and Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory and St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Broward will also participate in the Close Up program.

A dozen students from other South Florida high schools will join about 1,900 students from across the country for the High School Presidential Inaugural Conference, an event held every four years by Envision EMI, an education company based in the Washington, D.C. area.

Students at the five-day conference will meet Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state; design and simulate a presidential campaign; and will view the inaugural parade from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall.

Emily Riemer, 18, a student at Gulliver Preparatory School in Pinecrest, received the invitation for the conference in August and decided to go before she knew the results of the election. She had attended a leadership program in Washington last summer.

Riemer was one of the few students at Gulliver who could vote. She volunteered for the Obama campaign, watched the debates with her family and was proud to cast her first vote for the president.

“I had just turned 18 and I was ready. I was waiting for it for a long time,” Riemer said. “Maybe that one person I signed up or that one phone call I made was another vote for him.”

Riemer, who has an interest in being an investigative journalist, is thrilled about attending the inauguration.

“How many people can say they turned 18, voted, and then they went to the conference, and then watched the president swearing on Lincoln’s bible? It’s so exciting.’’

Kerilee Neita, 14, a freshman at Miami Killian Senior High School, will also attend the High School Presidential Inaugural Conference.

When Kerilee received the application her mother, Desmin Neita, 45, hesitated because of the program’s $3,195 cost.

But she changed her mind.

“When you think of what they can achieve from it in terms of college, scholarships and the exposure, and also to learn more about the history of this country,” said Neita, who works for a timeshare company in Kendall. “Those are some of the reasons why I said, ‘Let’s sacrifice and let her do this.’ ”

Neita received some financial support from St. Matthew Episcopal Church in Kendall, the church the family attends.

“I’m very privileged to have this chance,” Kerilee said. “Not many kids have said that they’ve gone to the inauguration at only 14 years old and they know so much about politics already.”

Neita bought two more tickets, one for herself and a second for her other daughter, Kimberley, 17. The girls’ father lives in Jamaica.

“It doesn’t matter what age you are, you should be involved with what’s going on because that’s going to affect you,” said Kimberly, who followed the elections with her mother and sister. “You get older and you end up knowing what’s going on and you want to be involved in that.”