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Fla. Principal On Showing Obama's Speech
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Fla. Principal On Showing Obama's Speech

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Fla. Principal On Showing Obama's Speech

Fla. Principal On Showing Obama's Speech
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Several schools did not show President Obama's speech Tuesday to the schoolchildren, but Jean Ferguson, principal of Amos P. Godbey High School in Tallahassee, Fla., did. Ferguson says of the 1,270 students at her school, 70 students opted not to watch the speech.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

At the Amos P. Godby High School in Tallahassee, Florida, students watched the president's speech on television in classrooms. Jean Ferguson is the principal there. And Ms. Ferguson, there are, what, about 1,300 students in your school?

Ms. JEAN FERGUSON (Principal, Amos P. Godby High School): Right. Today's count was 1,270.

BLOCK: Okay. Well, you gave students the option of opting out of watching the speech. How many chose to not watch?

Ms. FERGUSON: Seventy students.

BLOCK: And what did they do?

Ms. FERGUSON: They had a study hall in an adjoining room in their building.

BLOCK: And did they explain why they didn't want to watch?

Ms. FERGUSON: You know, some I had heard before today, you know, that their parents had an objection to it or, you know, these are adolescents, they'll opt out of just about anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I see…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FERGUSON: Defiant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, were you getting calls from parents saying, I don't want my…

Ms. FERGUSON: Last week, yes.

BLOCK: You were.

Ms. FERGUSON: Yes.

BLOCK: And what'd you tell them or what were they telling you?

Ms. FERGUSON: Well - I think what did they - wanted to know is that their student had options. It wasn't something that we were going to make mandatory and have a grade attached to it. And I really didn't think that was necessary, but I think it was important that the president wanted to address students.

BLOCK: You did think it was important.

Ms. FERGUSON: Yes, I do.

BLOCK: Why is that?

Ms. FERGUSON: One, he's the president of the United States. I think he does have a - especially for my students, a message that is similar, you know, in the background that's similar to theirs, that they have single parents or they're struggling, you know, with economic difficulties. Just this year, our free and reduced lunch went up nine percent this year.

BLOCK: You watched the speech yourself today in a classroom, is that right?

Ms. FERGUSON: That is correct.

BLOCK: And what did you think?

Ms. FERGUSON: I thought it was a great message. And those are the things that we say every day, you know, just about every minute to students. But coming from the president, you know, even if he gets the attention of one or two that could make this into, you know, a great experience. Public high school, you know, there's just so many opportunities here that sometimes I'm - I worry about the ones that let them go by.

BLOCK: The president talked in this speech about being the child of a single mother, about her having to struggle, about, you know, failure and the need to come back and to keep on trying. Was there a moment in the speech that particularly struck you, that really is stuck in your mind?

Ms. FERGUSON: That part about personal responsibility is so important to me, you know, I really do think your parents can care and the teachers definitely care, but until that student can actually start accepting some of that personal responsibility, it's tough pushing the car uphill.

BLOCK: Yeah, and a dose of reality in there, too. He was telling the kids, look, you can get this idea on television that you can be successful without hard work.

Ms. FERGUSON: Right.

BLOCK: And chances are, you're not going to be…

Ms. FERGUSON: Right.

BLOCK: …a huge rapper or a basketball star.

Ms. FERGUSON: Right. And to understand, you know, where are you in the progression of, you know, your goals, there are so many students that will say, I'm going to be a pediatrician, but they don't even like math and science. And I believe in the American dream. I want them to, too, but we all know that you just can't wish it, like some of them think they can. They have to have the hard work that goes along with it.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Ferguson, it's good to talk to you. Thank you.

Ms. FERGUSON: Well, thank you very much, Melissa, for your interest. Go cougars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: You had to get that in there.

Ms. FERGUSON: I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: That's Jean Ferguson. She's principal of Amos P. Godby High School in Tallahassee, Florida.

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Obama Stresses Responsibility In School Pep Talk

President Obama speaks at Wakefield High School 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

toggle 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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