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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 10, 2009

Back to school with Obama
Local districts handle controversial speech differently

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Local districts took different approaches when it came to airing President Barack Obama’s speech for students returning to school this week.

The speech had become controversial before it was made on Tuesday as some Conservatives and Republicans criticized it as promoting the president’s agenda or even promoting socialism.

Rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo is setting up an after-school session next week for students to hear the speech, with parental permission. Suburban Guilderland is leaving the decision in the hands of individual school principals and faculty. And Voorheesville aired the speech during a school lunch period so students who wanted to could hear it.

Obama began his roughly 20-minute talk to students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. with a reference to his youth in Indonesia when his mother taught him extra lessons, Monday through Friday — at 4:30 a.m.

“A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table,” he said as the crowd at Wakefield laughed. “But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and she’d say, ‘This is no picnic for me either, buster.’”

Obama went on to talk about the responsibility each student has for his or her own education.  He challenged students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning.

He confided there were times, since his father left the family when he was 2, that he was lonely and didn’t feel like he fit in. “So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of…But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances,” the president said.

He told the students that the circumstances of their lives were no excuse for neglecting homework or having a bad attitude.

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

Obama concluded his speech, “I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down — don’t let your family, your country, and, most of all, yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.”

At Voorheesville

Teresa Snyder, Voorheesville’s new superintendent, said her personal opinion is that the president is a very appropriate person to speak to schoolchildren.  “He is the leader of the country,” she said.

“I saw a gentleman telling schoolchildren to work hard,” Snyder said when asked about the appearance of an agenda in the speech.  “I think it’s a good agenda to have,” she said.

“He sounds just like my father,” or her husband with their children, she said of the content and tone; having Obama encourage kids to be responsible and work hard fills a paternal gap that many children have.

Because the speech was broadcast at noon, Snyder said, it was too hectic to organize an assembly on the first day of school. So, instead, Voorheesville showed the speech in the cafeteria during lunch period. That way, students were able to watch if they wanted to.

The district also burned CDs of the speech so that teachers could use it later in their classrooms if they wanted to.

Some kids who watched it had conversations, Snyder said, and the reaction was positive.

The school got about three calls from people concerned over the airing of the speech.

“It’s good to encourage people to talk,” Snyder said. “School should be about exposure to ideas, and different ideas.”

She grew up in a house where, whether you agree or disagree with someone, you listen.  That’s what she’d like to foster as an educator.


Thomas McGurl, the new principal at Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s high school, said the first day of school on Wednesday was too busy to air the president’s speech.

As the new principal, he had a speech of his own to make. Although McGurl has not seen or read Obamas’ speech  — he lives in Duanesburg during the school week where he doesn’t have cable, he said — some of the comments he made seemed similar to Obama’s themes.

“I talked to them about my expectations,” McGurl said. “I expect each and every kid to graduate with a high school degree on time… I expect great things from them.” He also went over school rules, he said.

Asked if he worried that Obama’s speech promoted a socialist agenda, McGurl said, “I didn’t personally have fears about that.”

BKW’s interim superintendent, Kim LaBelle, said the airing of Obama’s speech was discussed by the administrative team and the social studies department head at the middle-high school. They decided to offer a chance to listen to the speech, with parental permission, as an after-school activity next week, tentatively scheduled for Monday, Sept. 14.

When McGurl was asked how many students would be likely to stay after school to hear the president’s speech, he said, “I’ll be interested to see. I’ll let you know.”

At Guilderland

The Guilderland schools opened to students on Wednesday and the decision on whether or not to air the president’s speech was left up to building principals and teachers, Superintendent John McGuire said.

The district has five elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. “It’s a mixed bag,” McGuire said when asked which schools would be airing the speech. “It varies across buildings.”

McGuire said he had listened to portions of the speech and viewed the themes as familiar ones. “We’ve always worked to encourage students to do their best,” he said. “We welcome such advice from the president. We’ve had similar things in the past.”

Both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush made presidential addresses to students.

He went on about the Guilderland district, “We give out Presidential Awards for academic excellence and physical fitness. We welcome the support.”

Asked if he thought the speech promoted a socialist agenda, McGuire responded, “Absolutely not.”

One of the Guilderland schools showing the president’s speech is Farnsworth Middle School.

“We videotaped it and left it up to teachers to make the decision,” said Farnsworth Principal Mary Summermatter. “We feel it is an important message for students to hear from our president.”

Summermatter said yesterday that the tape would be available on a loop all day long today. “Teachers that have chosen to show it notified parents in case students wanted to opt out,” she said.

Asked if she had any concerns about the speech, Summermatter said, “I hate to get into that political ballgame.”

Summermatter has read Obama’s speech and said, “I thought he covered many of the things we say as educators and parents, asking students to work hard, to do their best, and to be kind.”

She concluded, “Many of the things he said are reflected in my words — do your best, develop your talents to the fullest, don’t be afraid to get help.”

Saranac Hale Spencer contributed the comments from Teresa Snyder, and Zach Simeone contributed the comments from Kim LaBelle.

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