Politics & Government

Students get the point

President Barack Obama's televised speech to the nation's schoolchildren went smoothly at most area schools Tuesday, and generally, students said they liked what the president had to say.

Students at Lexington's Henry Clay High School, for example, responded strongly to the president's call for America's students to stay in school, study hard and take responsibility for their educations.

Obama's description of his own struggles as a youngster growing up in a single-parent home struck a chord with senior Francis Baker, 17.

"I live with my mom and my brother, and you don't have as much as some other kids have," Baker said. "I like that he said that not having everything doesn't mean you still can't work hard in school. I just thought it was nice that he was speaking to the students. ... It's nice to have the president as a role model."

Carlee Ward, 10, a fifth-grader at Jessamine County's Brookside Elementary School, said she thought the speech "would persuade the kids who saw it to do better" and "help them through life to meet their goals and dreams."

"I thought it taught a good lesson, said Amanda Snyder, 10, another Brookside student. "He was talking, like, just because somebody is teasing you, that doesn't give you permission to tease other people."

At Scott County's Anne Mason Elementary School, third-grade teacher Brenda Harrison wrapped Obama's address around a classroom discussion about rights and responsibilities. The discussion was part of regular curriculum, Harrison said. When she asked students afterward about what their responsibilities were, one girl replied, "To learn."

Televised at noon from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., Obama's speech had become controversial over the past several days. Some Republican leaders in Kentucky and elsewhere questioned the purpose of the speech; some parents chose not to have their children hear it; and schools in some states decided to avoid the controversy and not air the speech.

Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said that as of Tuesday afternoon, it was impossible to say how many students statewide opted out of the president's speech or how many, if any, schools elected not to show it.

In Lexington, 279 students in the Fayette County Public Schools elected not to hear the president, according to district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall. An additional 24 youngsters were picked up from schools Tuesday morning by their parents, who said they didn't want their children to watch Obama, Deffendall said. Being away from school the entire day was counted as an unexcused absence. The Fayette schools have about 37,000 students.

Students who did not want to hear the president were allowed to work on alternative school assignments, Deffendall said. Each school arranged its own non-speech activities.

Meanwhile, about 15 young children and their parents who opted out of Obama's speech met over lunch Tuesday at Gattitown on Nicholasville Road in Lexington. The lunch session was promoted by Lexington's Mica Sims, a stay-at-home mom and blogger who also helped organize Taxed Enough Already protests in Lexington.

At Henry Clay, about 15 students opted not to hear Obama and went to the cafeteria to do school work instead, Principal John Nochta said. Overall, Nochta said, the president's address — which lasted about 15 minutes — generated few questions at the school. Henry Clay has about 2,100 students.

In most Fayette classrooms, teachers interrupted work so students could hear Obama, then immediately returned to studies. Deffendall said some teachers might have elected to have discussions of the speech.

Anne Marie Kirk, 17, a senior and president of the Young Republicans at Henry Clay, said she had no problem with Obama addressing students, as long as he steered clear of politics. Kirk said she, too, liked Obama's call for individual responsibility.

"I really appreciated that he was talking about students taking responsibility and taking pride in their country," Kirk said. "I think that if I weren't a student who already studies hard, it would be beneficial to hear the president say that, when you're studying, you're taking responsibility for your country."

Senior Alex Gardner, 17, president of the Young Democrats at Henry Clay, also said he liked the president's call for young people to take charge of their futures. Gardner said he was glad that Obama avoided politics, adding that the speech was "not the time or place" for that.

"I think it kind of puts to rest all the ruckus that was created about how he was going to brainwash children," Gardner said. "Hopefully, it makes the ones who raised such a ruckus feel ridiculous, because he was merely trying to inspire the kids."

Brookside Elementary teacher April Berry had her students pick five "big ideas" from the president's speech, then illustrate one of those ideas in a drawing. Berry said she received no objections to watching the president's speech from parents or guardians of her 28 fifth-graders.

Obama's comments on the importance of working hard and staying in school reinforced ideas that parents and teachers alike often use in talking to students, she said.

"They (students) realize that they're part of something bigger than Brookside; that they are the future," she said.

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