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Controversy over Obama's school speech fizzles
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Controversy over Barack Obama's back-to-school speech fizzled Tuesday as the president stuck to pre-released talking points on the importance of education, personal responsibility and hard work.

Utah students who watched the televised speech in class called it "inspiring" and "real." Some admitted to zoning out and others dismissed it as "a political stunt."

But all the uproar over Obama using classrooms to push socialism or a hidden policy agenda seemed overblown.

"I was suspicious at first," said Alta High School junior Joseph Gibbons. "But he sounded genuine, like he really cared."

Obama called upon students to set educational goals and study hard. He made little mention of his education policy, but encouraged allegiance to America, saying those who give up on themselves give up on their country.

"The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best," the president said.

The 15-minute speech capped a week of handwringing by parents and school officials nationwide over a perceived politicization of public schools.

Much of the angst centered on instruction guides designed by U.S. Department of Education, which asked students to write essays on how they can serve the president. The Obama administration subsequently revised the guides and school districts in Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin issued directives against airing the speech in classrooms.

Utah's Nebo School District issued a similar edict last week. But most Utah districts left the decision to teachers, allowing parents to let their kids opt out.

Among those to watch the live address were 64 A.P. history students at Alta High who say what resonated most was Obama's personal narrative of rising from underprivileged roots to the White House.

The speech was piped over the Internet, distorting the sound.

But no one laughed and there was no applause. The class sat attentively while Obama talked about growing up without his father, struggling to fit in and being raised by a mother who couldn't afford many luxuries.

"I didn't know [about] his dad," said 16-year-old Gibbons. "My dad died; it's kind of weird to have that personal connection."

Politically, Gibbons considers himself a conservative as do most of his peers, some of whom came to class prepared for propaganda.

But no one asked to be excused from the speech, and many left thinking Obama's message was on point.

"There was no hidden agenda," said 15-year-old Nicole Moody of Draper.

But there were a few cynics.

"It was a decent speech, but it was kind of like a stunt to pull up his approval ratings," said Travis Skene.

At Woods Cross High School, senior Aubree Jones said it seemed like Obama talked more about himself and his goals for education than about the country.

Aubrey Easton, another Woods Cross senior, isn't "a big fan" of Obama, but said she respected what he had to say as president.

"It just surprised me that he's human, you know," said Woods Cross sophomore Zach Taylor.

Countless other students missed the speech.

At Davis High School in Kaysville, about 150 to 200 students who opted not to view the speech worked on homework in the cafeteria while the school's other 2,200 students watched in classrooms or the auditorium, said principal Dee Burton. Twenty-six elementary schools in the Canyons district were barred from airing the address, due to districtwide testing and technical problems. But school board member Kevin Cromar is hoping to make recordings available at a later date.

Courtney Droz, a counselor at Mount Nebo Junior High, will ask her school board to consider adding the speech to the district's media archives, a list of documentaries, news broadcasts and other outside material approved for use in the classroom.

"Any presidential address has educational and historical value that's worth preserving in our schools," said Droz.

Nebo officials told teachers not to watch it in their offices or during prep time, "in case a student should walk by and see it," said Droz.

kstewart@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">kstewart@sltrib.com

schencker@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">schencker@sltrib.com

Politics » Uproar over possible indoctrination of students widely dismissed.
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