San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

September 9th, 2009
Hays County schools vary about Obama speech

STAFF REPORT

Hays County public school districts took subtly different approaches to President Barack Obama’s Tuesday speech to schoolchildren, which was broadcast nationally over the Internet and on C-SPAN and CNN at noon.

None of the Hays County school districts broadcast the speech live to entire bodies of students as a matter of policy. All of them said they will at least make recorded versions of Obama’s speech available to students, though all of the school districts also said they are giving parents the chance to “opt out” of having their children see the speech.

Additionally, all of the Hays County public school districts — which include San Marcos CISD, Hays CISD, Wimberley ISD and Dripping Springs ISD — mentioned that the speech posed logistical difficulties because classrooms aren’t all equipped with television sets, because the use of Internet to show the speech would crush bandwidth capacities and, especially, because the 15-minute speech began at noon, when many students aren’t even in class because they’re taking their lunch periods.

But most the most notable aspect of the entire episode, according to many local educators, was the vigorous support and opposition from parents since the Department of Education announced Obama’s speech last week.

“We had those who thought this was the best thing in the world and that every child should see it,” San Marcos CISD Superintendent Patty Shafer said. “And we had those who called and even said not only that they didn’t want their own child to see the speech, but they were concerned about any child seeing the speech. Many of them were very passionate for and very passionate against.”

Shafer said her administration decided to have copies of the speech made Tuesday, then leave it to teachers to show the speech at their discretion any time starting Wednesday. Copies will be available on every San Marcos CISD campus.

“From other superintendents I’ve talked to, it’s been everywhere,” Shafer said of the controversy connected with Obama’s speech.

Once news of Obama’s “back to school” speech hit the country last week, the President’s political opponents went on the offensive.

Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party in Florida, went so far as to say Obama’s speech would be an attempt “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.” Greer also said, “This White House has been very diabolical in creating outlets to communicate with young people.”

Others complained that the lesson plans accompanying the Department of Education’s announcement of the speech included a request that students “Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.”

A White House spokesperson later said the lesson plan was “inartfully worded,” and the plan was revised to say, “Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.”

Julie Jerome, Public Information Officer (PIO) for the Hays CISD, said teachers were given discretion to show Obama’s speech Tuesday, provided that “it had to be aligned with the curriculum, part of the instruction.”

About community response to the speech within Hays CISD, “The ones I heard from wanted the opt out,” though she added that she assumes people who favored the President’s speech were less likely to say anything.

In the western portions of the county, educators reported very mixed responses to the very idea of the President speaking directly with school children.

“We got a lot of requests on both ends,” said Greg Jung, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for Dripping Springs ISD. “We took the middle way.”

Jung said teachers would be allowed to show the speech if they wished, adding that many teachers probably had already shown the speech by mid-afternoon Tuesday. However, Jung added, technological challenges impeded the availability of the speech.

Jung said many of the district’s televisions are analog and that the school district is building technological upgrades that will include projection screens in every classroom. But those aren’t in place. Furthermore, Jung said, he tried to watch the speech stream on the Internet, and the bandwidth pressure was so great that he only received audio.

In a letter to parents, Wimberley ISD Superintendent Dwain York told parents the speech would be taped Tuesday and shown to students Wednesday. Like the other Hays County districts, Wimberley gave parents an opt out, which is due Wednesday morning.

“We all have our own political viewpoints and attitudes and as parents we all want to be able to discuss our viewpoints with our children,” York said in his letter. “As your superintendent, I do not feel it is the school district’s responsibility or place to emphasize one group’s philosophy and/or values over another. I do, however, feel it is the district’s responsibility to offer all our students the opportunity to listen or not listen to the President with parental/guardian approval.”

San Marcos CISD officials said a combination of Internet bandwidth issues, lunch hour and a lack of television sets in classrooms made it unfeasible to show the speech live.

Shafer added that she believed the revelation of the actual text of Obama’s speech would mollify parents who opposed the speech being shown. Obama’s speech focused on the students’ responsibilities to fight off obstacles and commit themselves to taking their school work seriously so they could maximize their opportunities and the national interest. He steered clear of discussing his policy agenda.

Shafer acknowledged that Obama’s background as a minority who grew up in a single-parent household, which is unusual for a United States President and very common for San Marcos CISD students, stands to make him an effective agent for motivating such students in their school work.

“We think so,” she said.

Presidential speeches to school children aren’t unprecedented, though they were long ago.

On May 13, 1986, Ronald Reagan gave a speech to students at John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, NC, which, he said in the text, was “being broadcast live over radio and television to high school students throughout the country.” On Nov. 14, 1988, Reagan spoke to students at Jefferson Junior High School in Washington, DC, during which he greeted “those of you who are watching on C-SPAN and — or the Instructional Television Network. Thank you for inviting us into your home or your school today.” In each speech, Reagan avowedly promoted his economic and taxation policies.

On Aug. 22, 1991, George H.W. Bush spoke to students at Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, DC, and “millions more in classrooms all across the country,” he said during the speech. Bush gave a very similar speech to Obama’s, staying away from political advocacy as he challenged children to do their best in school.

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5 thoughts on “Hays County schools vary about Obama speech

  1. It is unfortunate that we can’t seem to get this passionate about the overall state of our school system.

  2. I’m no Obama fan, but I don’t see what the big deal is. As parents we need to teach our children both respect for the office of the President and the ability to evaluate and process this type of information independently…and I think this is a perfect opportunity to do a little of both.

    It seems, though, that many of the area districts seem to be blaming technical difficulties for not broadcasting the speech (plus the fact that the speech occurred during lunch) more than anything.

  3. Technical difficulties? Really?
    Every school in the SMCISD is new and ‘wired’ for internet and cable.
    It’s just not true.

  4. Some just don’t seem to understand what the uproar was over. I was not about the speach itself but rather the lesson plans that were put out by the Dept. of Education that asked children to “write down what they planned to do to help the president”. None of us, especially our children, are here to “help the president”. It should be our job to help our country and nothing more.

  5. COS, when I was a child we were all brought by our SM school to listen to LBJ speak at SWT. It is one of my earliest memories. I am a product of the Headstart program he started. I did feel great that this leader was speaking to me, a very young child. I will continue to help any President to make this a better country for all of us no matter of political affiliation. Our kids lost out and it is a BIG DEAL and terrible message we send that our future leaders do not matter.

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