Friday, September 4, 2009
Obama talk off-limits to some kids
Published Friday September 4, 2009
By Joe Dejka
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Children in some of the Omaha metro area's largest school districts won't see Tuesday's live presidential pep talk that's meant for them.
President Obama will speak about “persisting and succeeding in school” and challenge students to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The address is at 11 a.m. on the White House Web site and on C-SPAN.
School districts nationwide received a flurry of phone calls and letters this week from parents who fear that Obama will stray beyond inspiration into political indoctrination. Many conservative talk show hosts and blogs are telling parents and schools to boycott the address.
Millard, Bellevue and Papillion-La Vista have decided not to interrupt the school day for the talk. The exception is if teachers think it fits the curriculum for government classes.
Council Bluffs Community Schools and Omaha Public Schools are giving teachers more discretion to determine if they think the talk is appropriate for students.
“Most of the schools in our district are going to provide the opportunity in the library,” OPS spokeswoman Luanne Nelson said. “If they want to go watch the president, it's available.”
Annette Eyman, spokeswoman for the Papillion-La Vista Schools, said phones started ringing Wednesday after the Department of Education announced the address, which will coincide with the first day of school in many of the nation's districts.
Parents were not as concerned about the official topic as what political messages Obama may work into the speech and how teachers will handle the post-speech classroom discussion and activities.
The Obama administration also has received criticism over lesson plans it created to accompany the speech. The plans, available online, originally recommended that 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 educational goals.”
Simon Danigole Jr. of Omaha said he is concerned about what message Obama will send to his grandchildren. Four are in Millard and two are in OPS.
Encouragement would be fine, as long as Obama doesn't go beyond that, Danigole said.
“I don't want him coming out telling the kids ‘You can help me' and you can write letters and go through a workbook about what President Obama said,” Danigole said.
OPS Superintendent John Mackiel sent a note to all employees Thursday advising that students would benefit if teachers choose to incorporate the talk into lessons.
He wrote that the district had received “a number of phone calls and e-mails from citizens and parents.”
“There appears to be a presumption this is a political activity,” he wrote. “It is not a political activity! We have informed those who contacted us of the voluntary nature of this opportunity and the fact that we believe it is important for our students to hear from the president on the importance education played in his life and that of his family.”
Nelson, the OPS spokeswoman, said the district plans to handle the speech as it would a U.S. senator or other official wanting to address children.
There is a precedent for allowing the broadcast, Nelson said. On Sept. 13, 1989, President George H.W. Bush delivered a televised message to “Say no to drugs.” “We responded in exactly the same way,” Nelson said.
Gene Kelly, a former Papillion-La Vista school board member, said the broadcast is “a terrible idea.” He doesn't want his three elementary-age children to get the idea that the government, particularly the president, sets their goals.
“I'm not interested in the president giving my children a pep talk, because I don't believe he's a good role model for my children,” he said. “He believes things that I do not believe. So I don't want my children taking advice from him.”
Papillion-La Vista will not allow children younger than high school age to view the broadcast live, Eyman said. The district doesn't normally allow elementary teachers to show materials that haven't been previewed.
High school students can watch it live if teachers consider it relevant to the curriculum, for example in government or current affairs classes.
High school students are more sophisticated and teachers are trained to facilitate discussions, Eyman said.
Millard spokeswoman Amy Friedman said teachers are advised to follow the district's policy on controversial issues.
“What the rule says is the ideas presented by the speaker must be related to the curricular activity in which the student is involved, and attendance must be voluntary on the part of the student,” Friedman said.
Parents who don't want their children to see it can call the school and opt out, she said.
If parents want their children to see it, but it's not offered in class, then children can watch it after school on the White House Web site, she said.
In the Council Bluffs Community Schools, Superintendent Martha Bruckner advised principals in writing that listening to the speech was an acceptable activity “if teachers perceive that the message is appropriate for students.”
“We in schools have said we cannot ‘do it alone,' so we welcome adults in our community and in our country who offer to help us,” she wrote.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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