Obama Has Message Of Hard Work for Students

President Obama welcomed the nation's students back to school Tuesday with a televised speech urging hard work and high hopes. Some critics of the president had warned the speech would be an advertisement for the White House agenda, but the actual remarks contained little cause for controversy.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

President Obama delivered his back to school speech today. He told children to study hard, stay in school, pursue their passions and wash their hands. It was a pep talk, not the political speech that some conservatives had predicted and protested.

BLOCK: We're going to hear from a principal, from some students and from presidents past, who also addressed schoolchildren nationwide.

First, here's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: After the president finished speaking at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia today, it was hard to remember what all the fuss was about. Here's some of the president's advice.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education and do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class or spending some time each day reading a book.

LIASSON: Inspiring perhaps, but not very controversial. And not unlike the politically innocuous study hard, stay in school messages of previous presidents. Of course, those messages were subject to political sniping as well. Back in 1991, when George H. W. Bush gave a similar speech, Democrats called it political advertising.

This time, conservatives protested that Mr. Obama would use the occasion to indoctrinate children with a socialist agenda. And the controversy got a boost from a lesson plan provided by the Department of Education, suggesting children write letters about how they could help the president. Once that suggestion was dropped, one outspoken critic, Florida state Republican Party Chair Jim Greer, had to change his tune. He told CNN today, he'd let his kids watch the speech after all.

Mr. JIM GREER (Chairman, Republican Party of Florida): So after reading the text, seeing the Department of Education have told teachers they are not to lead students in the direction that they would've a week ago, my kids will be watching the president's speech, as all - I hope all kids will.

LIASSON: Before the speech, the president answered questions from a small group of ninth graders who wanted to know how his life had changed.

Pres. OBAMA: These days, either people are waving and really happy to see me or they're booing me, saying…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: …you know, but nobody just kind of interacts with you in a normal way.

LIASSON: It was an apt description of the polarized environment the president has found as he tries to push his program through Congress. Mr. Obama ran as a consensus seeker, someone who could rise above petty divisions, but he's learned how difficult being post-partisan can be, even when the subject is a speech to schoolchildren.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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Obama Stresses Responsibility In School Pep Talk

President Obama speaks at Wakefield High School i i

President Obama speaks Tuesday at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. Obama spoke to students across the country about the importance of personal accountability, working hard, staying in school and taking responsibility for their success. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images
President Obama speaks at Wakefield High School

President Obama speaks Tuesday at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. Obama spoke to students across the country about the importance of personal accountability, working hard, staying in school and taking responsibility for their success.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

In a televised pep talk that had prompted criticism in advance from some conservatives, President Obama on Tuesday told schoolchildren to study hard and not let failures defeat them.

Obama told students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., that the each of them has a talent — and their country is depending upon them to develop it.

"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don't do that, if you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself; you're quitting on your country," he said.

The White House had hoped that students around the country would hear the address, but many school districts backed away from airing it live after conservative talk show hosts charged last week that Obama was using the speech to push a political agenda.

After days of criticism, the White House's decision to release the text in advance appeared to have muted some protests, though many districts were making the decision of on whether to air the speech on a campus-by-campus basis.

In Arlington, a small group of demonstrators met the presidential motorcade as it rounded the corner to the school. A few carried signs that read, "Mr. President, stay away from our kids" and "Our children serve God, not the president."

Department of Education officials said Wakefield High School was chosen as the site of the speech because it is among the most racially diverse and highest performing schools in Arlington County, which is a Washington suburb. Most of the students — 47 percent — are Hispanic; 27 percent are black and 11 percent are Asian.

Students were given the opportunity to decline participation if their parents sent an e-mail to the school.

Obama got a rousing welcome from the students, who participated in a question-and-answer session with the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan before the speech.

Other districts also let students watch the address. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest, administrators encouraged principals at their 89 year-round schools to view the speech as a "teachable moment," said Robert Alaniz, the district's communications director.

Last week, the district received numerous calls from parents who wanted their children to have a chance to participate, even though most students don't return to class from summer recess until Wednesday, he said.

"They saw it as an opportunity, particularly when the White House released it for the children to view the speech with their peers and be able to discuss the speech and obtain some sort of teaching experience," he said.

District officials received only two calls from people who were opposed to airing the speech and said they were parents. Alaniz said those calls came from people in the 415 area code, which is outside the Los Angeles area, leading officials to believe they were not parents.

At Philadelphia's Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, about a dozen students and parents gathered in a classroom to watch the speech.

Sharita Reid-Elam, mother of a seventh grader, welcome the pro-education message. "Anyone who has anything positive to say, let them say it," she said.

In Florida, where the speech was harshly criticized by state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, school officials in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools said parents were initially concerned, but seemed more agreeable after the text was posted on the White House Web site.

"We basically made it voluntary. We sent a message to the parents and to all the schools that if it's something dealing with the instructional mission of the classroom that they can view it if they want," said Hilda Diaz, district spokeswoman. "If the parents send a note, then the students don't have to participate."

Even Greer backed off his opposition after he read the text, saying Monday that he thought the speech was fine.

"It's a good speech," Greer told ABC News."It encourages kids to stay in school and the importance of education, and I think that's what a president should do when they're going to talk to students across the country."

Last week, Greer had said he was appalled that taxpayer dollars were being used to spread Obama's "socialist ideology."

During the speech, Obama avoided politics altogether, focusing instead on motivating students to live up to their potential.

The president acknowledged that many of the students are growing up in situations that are less than optimal. Drawing on his own life experiences, he said his father left the family when he was a toddler. Later, his mother didn't have the money to send him to the best schools, so she got him up at 4:30 a.m. to teach him extra lessons.

"Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future," he said.

Jim Hilgen of member station WRTI in Philadelphia contributed to this story.

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