TOPICS > Education

Obama Speaks to Students in High-profile Address

September 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez gets reactions from teachers, parents and students to President Barack Obama's back-to-school address, which created controversy among some groups.

JIM LEHRER: Now our look at President Obama’s back-to-school trip. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The president arrived at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, for today’s address to the country’s students, part of an administration-wide effort meant to focus on education.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, I know that, for many of you, today is the first day of school. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.

RAY SUAREZ: But, in today’s partisan political environment, the president’s stay-in-school message became the focus of conservative critics, who suggested ulterior motives behind the speech.

ANNOUNCER: Is the president pushing a hidden agenda onto America’s youth?

RICK SANCHEZ, anchor, CNN: Some are saying that what this president is doing is trying to indoctrinate, that he’s actually trying to do something more akin to socialism, to Saddam Hussein, to Fidel Castro.

WOMAN: He might push his agenda, the health care, things like that.

RAY SUAREZ: White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs shot back at the administration critics yesterday.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: It’s a sad state of affairs that many in this country politically would rather start an “Animal House” food fight, rather than inspire kids to stay in school, to work hard.

RAY SUAREZ: Those detractors pointed to guidance given schools recommending students write essays about what they could do to help the president. That was similar to advice given 18 years ago by President George H.W. Bush, one of several presidents to give scholastic pep talks.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Bush was criticized then by Democrats. And, in an attempt defuse critics now, the Obama administration changed the guidance and posted the text of the speech on its Web site yesterday, well in advance of the president’s address. An early critic, the chair of the Florida GOP, said he was satisfied.

JIM GREER, chairman, Florida Republican Party: The speech tomorrow is a speech that any president should give, and my kids will be listening to it.

School's respond with caution

RAY SUAREZ: Unlike past presidential tutorials, today's speech was seen on cable and the Internet, but many school systems decided against showing it. Some cited lack of equipment or first-day-of school scheduling issues. At Charles Hay Elementary outside Denver, fourth grade teacher Thomas Rode said he decided to review the speech before showing it to his students.

THOMAS RODE, teacher, Charles Hay Elementary: I had some calls from some parents that were concerned about the message that the speech was sending. And, on Thursday, when we left, I didn't have a copy of the text, so I couldn't reassure them what it would or would not be saying. So, I thought, to play it safe, I would preview the speech first to make sure it wasn't overly political in nature, make sure it was going to stay with the message stay in school, and then I was going to show it later on.

RAY SUAREZ: The school set up a room for children whose parents did not want them to see the address.

WOMAN: So, if you were president, and you were going to make a speech today, what might you want to say?

RAY SUAREZ: But most classrooms watched it, and the school invited parents in to watch with their children. Jessica Luem was in her son William's third grade class today.

JESSICA LUEM, parent: For us, we have always been open and talked about worldly events. And, you know, we were kind of surprised that it was so controversial that he was doing a speech. I mean, there's been a lot of presidents that have done the exact same thing in schools. So, we were, I think, both a little surprised.

RAY SUAREZ: In school systems around the country, the decision on whether or when to show the president's speech was left up to individual administrators. Here, at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Virginia, there was never any question.

NARDOS KING, principal, Mount Vernon High School: It's nice to have the most powerful man in the world, you know, reiterate what -- what administrators have been saying to students.

Student take-aways

RAY SUAREZ: Nardos King is principal at Mount Vernon. She says the school received no complaints from parents about the speech, and that the message had particular credibility with some students.

NARDOS KING: You -- you add more credibility to students when you are honest with them. They know we weren't perfect.

BARACK OBAMA: I did some things that I'm not proud of, and I got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

NARDOS KING: I think it is best that you tell kids that you had made mistakes, and that is why you are able to speak to those mistakes at a different level as an adult, in -- hopes that perhaps they will not have to go through the same turmoil that we might have gone through as children.

RAY SUAREZ: Mount Vernon hosted Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin as part of the administration's outreach. He said the uproar surprised him.

NEAL WOLIN, deputy U.S. Treasury secretary: From my perspective, the themes that the president talked about this morning are really basic themes, ones that, no matter who you are or where you are from, ought to resonate, the importance of education, the need for young students to take control of their own education, their own lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Three students who watched the speech, all college-bound, found value in the president's encouragement. Corinthia Evans is a 17-year old senior. Was there a particular part of it that you thought, yes, I think -- I liked hearing that?

CORINTHIA EVANS, high school senior: I like -- I like the point that he made about it doesn't matter where, like, you come from, like, and how education somewhat equalizes, like, your opportunity. So, even if you were poor when you were younger, just because somebody else is rich, doesn't mean that you can't reach the same, like, level, as, like, you can't all have the same job or be successful. You can still be successful, regardless of where you came from.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew McKellips, also 17, was a little concerned beforehand the speech might be overly political.

ANDREW MCKELLIPS, high school student: I gave him a fair chance with making sure that there wasn't anything political in there. And I was -- I was very happy that there really wasn't. I didn't think so at all. It was just a pep talk for all of the students of America, and the world, too.

RAY SUAREZ: And a decent use of your time?

ANDREW MCKELLIPS: Yeah, definitely.

RAY SUAREZ: Mount Vernon graduates almost all its students, some 85 percent to 90 percent. The sense of the event from students and faculty -- the president's words couldn't hurt and just might help.