OAKLAND — Grammy-winning rapper T.I. visited Cole Middle School on Tuesday afternoon, and he had a clear message for his rapt audience: Get an education, work hard, and stay out of trouble.

"If you don't have an education, you'll never reach your full potential," T.I. told them, before saying he dropped out of school in the ninth grade.

T.I., who has been performing community service as part of a plea agreement in a federal weapons case, was invited to speak at a peace celebration held at the West Oakland school. A surprise guest, he was one of a number of hip-hop artists, dancers and drummers featured in the community event organized by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, which runs a violence prevention program at Cole.

Wearing dark blue sweats and a hat pushed to the side, T.I. stood in the middle of a large circle of folding chairs and broached a sensitive topic: an incident last month in which a gun discharged in a Cole classroom. The 13-year-old boy accused of bringing the pistol to school is in juvenile hall on numerous weapons charges and on charges in two unrelated robbery cases.

"That's horrible that any of you feel you need a gun in order to come to school," the rapper told the boy's former classmates. Last year, just hours before the BET Hip Hop Awards, T.I. was arrested in Atlanta on a number of federal weapons charges, including the possession of unregistered machine guns and the possession of firearms by a felon. On Tuesday, he told students he had been arrested 32 times and was lucky to be alive.


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When T.I. invited questions from the audience, a teacher at juvenile hall asked if the rapper had a message for the incarcerated 13-year-old former Cole student. "Tell him it's never too late to learn from his mistakes," T.I. said. "What's important is how he's going to position himself to move forward."

Jumoke Hinton Hodge, the Oakland school board member-elect for the West Oakland district, said there had been some concern about whether T.I.'s appearance at Cole would send a mixed message to the children. Hinton Hodge said T.I. is a role model for the students because of his celebrity, and his words were important for them to hear. "It's a story of survival," she said.