By Michael Allison Chandler, Nick Anderson and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 8, 2009 2:29 PM
President Obama, shrugging off a controversy over his appearance at a Northern Virginia high school, challenged students Tuesday to develop their skills and take responsibility for their education.
In a visit to Wakefield High School in Arlington, Obama used the post-Labor Day reopening of schools in Northern Virginia and other parts of the country to meet with students and deliver a lunchtime pep talk that was broadcast to schools across the country.
He told students that "if you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."
Obama described his own upbringing, noting that he "got in more trouble than I should have" as a youth. He told the students, "There is no excuse for not trying. No one has written your destiny for you, because here in America you write your own destiny."
Obama met privately with a group of 9th graders before the speech, which was broadcast live to thousands of classrooms across the country.
He made no mention of the controversy over his school appearance in his speech or in the meeting with students. Some conservatives had attributed political motives to the appearance. However, in response to students' questions in the meeting with the 9th graders, Obama touted his health-care reform plan, saying he found motivation to overhaul the health-care system in some of the letters he receives from ordinary Americans.
"Some of those stories are really depressing," Obama said, according to a transcript. "And that motivates you because you say, 'Well, I can't make everything perfect. I can't prevent somebody from getting sick. But maybe I can make sure that they've got insurance so that when they do get sick, they're going to get some help.' "
In response to another student's question, Obama said that "the majority of Americans still have health insurance through their job, and . . . most of them are happy with it. But a lot of people fall through the cracks." He added: "So what we're trying to do is set up a system where people who have health insurance on the job . . . can keep it, but if you don't have health insurance for the job, if you're self-employed, if you're unemployed, that you're able to get health insurance through another way. And we can afford to do it, and it will actually, I think, over time save us money if we set that up."
One student asked Obama, "If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?" The president replied: "I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine. Now, it would probably be a really small meal."
He said he found "a lot of inspiration" in the leader of India's nonviolent independence movement and noted that Gandhi had also inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and labor leader Cesar Chavez.
Gandhi "helped people who thought they had no power realize that they had power, and then helped people who had a lot of power realize that if all they're doing is oppressing people, then that's not a really good exercise of power," Obama said. "So, you know, I'm always interested in people who are able to bring about change, not through violence, not through money, but through the force of their personality and their ethical and moral stances."
When another student told Obama that he "would like to have your job" when he grows up and asked for advice, Obama said that, for starters, everyone should be "careful about what you post on Facebook" because "when you're young, you know, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff."
He also criticized politicians who run for office "just for the sake of getting elected" and, as a result, "actually never get anything done." He urged young people to be "passionate" about accomplishing something regardless of the career they choose.
The noon addresswas timed to coincide with the first day of the 2009-2010 academic year in many districts. In the Washington area, an estimated 340,000 youngsters returned to public school classrooms in Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington counties and the cities of Alexandria, Manassas, Manassas Park and Falls Church. Many area private schools also began their fall semesters -- including Sidwell Friends School, which Obama's two young daughters attend.
D.C. and Maryland schools, for the most, part opened their doors over the last two weeks.
According to a text of Obama's remarks released Monday by the White House, the address aimed to inspire students by telling them to persevere in their studies, discover their passions and live a healthy life.
"What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future," Obama said.
Wakefield Principal Doris Jackson told students that she believes the president chose the high school as the venue for the speech because of Wakefield's dedicated teachers and its diverse and high-performing students. She told them to savor this experience, which they would share with their children and grandchildren.
"Be in the moment," she said. "Feel the electricity in the room. . . . Take pictures with your eyes and recordings with your ears. . . . Remember what it felt like today."
After brief introductions by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Wakefield's student body president, Obama took the stage to cheers and applause from the assembled students and teachers.
The advance publication of Obama's speech was an effort to reassure parents after criticism from Republicans, who called the back-to-school address an inappropriate political intrusion into the classroom.
Some parents threatened to keep their children out of school to avoid hearing the speech. But after reading the advance text, the Florida GOP chairman, who last week accused the president of trying to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda," said he had no problem with letting his children watch.
"It's a good speech," the official, Jim Greer, said Monday. "It encourages kids to stay in school and the importance of education, and I think that's what a president should do."
In an interview with CNN Monday, former first lady Laura Bush said, "There's a place for the president of the United States to talk to schoolchildren and encourage schoolchildren" to stay in school.
Bush, a former teacher, said that regardless of partisan differences, it's "really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States."
In Fairfax County, the region's largest school system, Superintendent Jack D. Dale said he said he has heard from parents on both sides of the debate over the president's speech, and has given principals authority to decide whether to show it.
"The speech is phenomenally good," Dale said during a first-day of school visit to Westfield High School. "It's all about the positive aspects of kids taking ownership of their education."
Westfield Principal Tim Thomas said the speech would be shown at 1:30 p.m. in all classrooms. "I felt as though, especially after reading the script yesterday, that it's a great educational energizer," Thomas said. "Our students will benefit from the encouragement and motivation."
Laura Dempsey, a 16-year-old junior, said she didn't know what all the fuss was about. "If he's just talking about kids staying in school and not dropping out, I think that's a good idea," she said.
Fairfax's 173,000 students are adjusting to several cost-cutting measures this school year, including fewer bus stops, slightly larger class sizes and some consolidated starting times. After visiting Westfield, Dale was to tour two new elementary schools: Lutie Lewis Coates, in Herndon, and Laurel Hill, in Lorton.
An hour before the president's speech, bleachers on both sides of Wakefield's gym were already full of students, most of whom were waiting patiently. The walls were lined with green and white athletic pennants. The podium sat empty in front of a sign that read. "MY EDUCATION, MY FUTURE."
Outside streets were blocked off. Desiree Armstrong, 17, said she was excited to find herself walking past police and secret service agents to get into the building for her first day as a high school senior.
"Wakefield. . . . It's like the poorest school in Arlington," Armstrong said. The mostly minority student body, she added, would be inclined to listen closely to Obama, the nation's first black president.
Officials at Wakefield said they were ecstatic about the president's appearance, which followed a visit to the school last spring by Duncan. Duncan has hailed the school's record of success and academic achievement in a student body notable for its ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. The themes of Obama's address included dedication and resilience, qualities that educators at Wakefield say they emphasize year-round.
"The circumstances of your life -- what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home -- that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude," Obama said. "That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher or cutting class or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying."
Obama also told students that they, and only they, are ultimately responsible for their own success. "At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents and the best schools in the world -- and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities," he said.
The president did not mention his political agenda, as many conservatives feared he would when details of the speech and the Education Department's suggested follow-up lessons emerged last week.
The criticism arose, in part, from an Education Department recommendation that students write letters to themselves about "what they could do to help the president." That was later changed to a suggestion that students write about "how they can achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals."
Speaking to reporters at Wakefield in advance of the speech, Duncan dismissed the controversy as "water off a duck's back" and said it is important to stay focused on children and not get distracted by the adults' political debates. The speech, he emphasized, was totally voluntary. Students "can watch it today. . . . They can watch it tonight with their parents. They can watch it in two weeks. They can never watch it."
The Education Department was the site of a small protest Tuesday that focused on a different issue: the proposed termination of the federal voucher program that helps poor children from the District pay tuition at private schools. Congressional Democrats, backed by the Obama administration, are seeking to phase the program out. But many Republicans, and some D.C.-based Democrats, support it.
At about 10 a.m., former D.C. council member Kevin P. Chavous linked arms with five other voucher supporters and stood in front of the main entrance of the federal agency, at 400 Maryland Avenue SW.
The protesters said their goal was to block access to the building and get arrested, thus drawing attention to their cause. But the two lines of uniformed officers from the Federal Protective Service standing guard at the door and made no effort to handcuff the activists.
After about 20 minutes of standing nose-to-nose with the police, the protesters realized they would not be arrested.
"We are not going to be deterred from making sure this program is reauthorized," Chavous said before the group dispersed. "We're willing to put our bodies on the line. . . . You may not lock us up, but we'll be back."
Staff writers Debbi Wilgoren, Emma Brown, Jenna Johnson and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.