N.Va. Schools Open With Living History Lesson as Obama Speech Adds to Drama

Public schools across D.C. and Maryland welcome students back to class.
By Michael Alison Chandler and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The first day of school is often met with excitement, jitters, even dread. It's rarely a day for jumping up and down and shrieking. But that's what happened yesterday at Wakefield High School when President Obama walked on stage at noon.

Backed by a blue sign that read "MY EDUCATION, MY FUTURE," the president delivered an 18-minute speech urging students to take responsibility for their education and success. The pre-released speech offered few surprises for the parents and pundits who debated for days over whether it was an inappropriate political intrusion into the school day.

But for the 1,600 students and staff members at Wakefield High it was a pep rally. On steroids. A celebration of their school's academic accomplishments.

"I was proud to be a part of it," said Senior Class President Timothy Spicer, 17, who introduced the president. "Now I feel ready to start school."

The president's message marked the first day back for about 340,000 public school students across Northern Virginia. It was also the first day back for many area private schools, including Sidwell Friends School, which Obama's two young daughters attend.

Students and teachers are returning to classrooms pinched by the deepest financial challenges since the early 1990s. Schools were spared deeper cuts by an infusion of federal stimulus money, but many will have larger classes, more student fees and frozen teacher salaries.

Officials also spent the summer preparing for the possibility of a swine flu outbreak. But since the White House announced last week that Obama would address students on the first day, school officials have been scrambling to prepare for the first national speech made by a president to schoolchildren in 18 years.

Deciding how or whether to air the speech was complicated, given stressful first-day schedules. It was also controversial: Conservatives seized on the unusual speech, calling it an attempt to indoctrinate students. Scores of parents phoned or e-mailed officials in school districts across the country to complain. Some threatened to keep their children home to avoid hearing it.

The White House released the speech a day early so parents could review it.

Standing before the cheering crowd in the Wakefield auditorium, Obama delivered the speech almost verbatim. Although light on the politics of the day, the president's message placed a heavy load of responsibility on students.

"The future of America depends on you," he told the teenagers, adding that innovation and prosperity depend on an educated workforce.

He urged them to stay in school, work hard and set educational goals, such as doing their homework, paying attention in class or reading every day. And he emphasized that lack of resources or parental support are not an excuse for poor performance.

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