Friday, September 04, 2009

Schools address Obama's speech unease

Many offer parents option to have kids skip talk

by Ray Parker - Sept. 4, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

Gilbert parent Keith James wants his child to skip President Barack Obama's address to schools next week.

It's not that he thinks the president shouldn't support education. It's that he thinks the speech could have a hidden agenda.

"Being a Black conservative and not comfortable with the president's agenda, this going-into-the-classroom thing really bugs me," said James, who will have his eighth-grade son skip the speech.

Across Arizona, school-district officials are scrambling to deal with the growing national controversy, and they are responding in a variety of ways.

Many districts will follow the middle path taken by Mesa Public Schools
, Arizona's largest district. The district will allow parents to have their children opt out of the speech, but only if they contact the school first. It is the same policy the district uses for similar situations - if a parent objects to a reading assignment, for instance.

Other districts, such as Scottsdale Unified, are taking the extra step of actually sending opt-out forms home with all students.

Still other districts have put all-or-nothing guidelines on the speech. Tempe Elementary School District
will require all students to watch the president's speech with no opt-out provision. Prescott Unified School District, on the other hand, will not have any students watch it.

"The president's speech next week is a perfect example of 'a good idea gone astray,' " Prescott Superintendent Kevin Kapp wrote on the district's Web site. "After reviewing the materials associated with the speech, (Prescott schools) will not televise the speech or broadcast it via computers."

Obama will address students via the Internet in what U.S. Department of Education officials said will be a back-to-school speech "about persisting and succeeding in school."

The speech is expected to be about 15 to 20 minutes long, and the Education Department has prepared classroom materials for all grades to accompany it.

"I think it's really unfortunate that politics has been brought into this," White House deputy policy director Heather Higginbottom told the Associated Press. "It's simply a plea to students to really take their learning seriously. Find out what they're good at. Set goals. And take the school year seriously."

But after conservative media figures started calling the speech "indoctrination," parents started calling Valley school districts this week requesting their children skip the speech.

Critics are particularly upset about the lesson plans the administration created to accompany the speech. The lesson plans originally recommended having students "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president."

The White House revised the plans Wednesday to say students could "write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals."

"That was inartfully worded, and we corrected it," Higginbottom said.

Some parents are not convinced.

"Is this part of the district curriculum or a way for the White House to get into classrooms?" asked Mesa parent Linda Grant, who has a seventh-grade daughter who will opt out.

In Arizona district offices, school officials said there's been some gnashing of teeth.

Mesa schools Superintendent Mike Cowan said the district had received a number of complaints, but it was not a large percentage of the district's nearly 70,000 students. He said Obama's speech will be shown in schools, yet, as always, parents can choose to have their children opt out.

"Considering this is an historic event, we will do what we can do," Cowan said, noting that seven months ago President Obama gave a national speech about stemming home foreclosures inside Mesa's Dobson High School.

The Department of Education has provided six pages of supplemental online material for educators dealing with the speech. Before the speech, for example, teachers inpre-kindergarten to sixth grade can build "background knowledge about the President of the United States and his speech by reading books about presidents and Barack Obama."

Tom Horne, the Republican state superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, said he's troubled that the accompanying federal materials "are too worshipful toward Obama" and are "educationally unsound."

Richard Ban Dyne, who taught social studies in Valley schools for 34 years, disagreed.

"There's nothing objectionable in that material," he said. "Come on, it encourages students to be responsible for their education."

Obama's speech, which will be broadcast at Arizona schools at 9 a.m. Tuesday, isn't the first of its kind, although the use of the Internet does make it accessible to a wider audience.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush spoke to students at Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, D.C., imploring them to study hard and to stay away from drugs. The speech was broadcast nationwide.

The Department of Education broadcast Bush's speech live, and the White House sent letters to schools around the country encouraging principals and teachers to have students tune in. The speech reached 4.4 million children in 110,000 schools, according to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Avondale parent Maggie Stinson, who has two children in high school, said she was surprised by the controversy.

"I would have thought that the Republican Party would have chosen a much more pressing topic to pick Obama apart on (since) there are plenty," Stinson said. "But that is only my opinion after skeptically listening, analyzing and thinking critically about this upcoming speech," she said.

To read the supplemental material provided by the Department of Education, log on to ed.gov/admins/lead/academic/bts.html.

Alex Bloom, Emily Gersema, Megan Gordon, Kerry Fehr-Snyder, Eugene Scott, Jeffrey Javier and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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