Few students opt out of Obama's nationwide pep talk

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Obama spoke to students across the nation early Tuesday afternoon, encouraging them to make the most of their education and avoid some of the mistakes he made — while avoiding any mention of the controversy that the speech had created in recent days.

The speech aired live in all Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, apparently with a minimum of drama.

Early reports indicated many Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools had few or no opt-outs — something that seemed also to be true around the country.

In Florida's Manatee County, about 150 students didn't view the speech, out of the county's 43,000 enrollment. Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer had been one of the chief critics of the speech, until he was able to read a copy of the presentation on Monday and pronounced that he'd have his own children view it.

At Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., 15 of the school's 2,100 students opted to spend time in the library, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. The paper quoted Anne Marie Kirk, 17, a senior and president of the Young Republicans at Henry Clay, as saying she liked Obama's call for individual responsibility.

In Anchorage, where the school superintendent said last week that she'd been deluged with e-mail protests, there were few students who didn't show up for the speech, which took place at 8 a.m. Anchorage time. In one high school class of 25, only one student opted out. In a grade school class, the count was one out of 49.

The biggest "opt-out" may have taken place in Texas, where the Arlington school district, between Dallas and Fort Worth, refused to show the speech at all. About 100 people gathered at a local Baptist church to watch the speech and to question the district's plans to bus fifth graders to an event at Dallas Cowboys stadium Sept. 21 that will feature an address by former President Bush.

The president's remarks were made to 1,400 students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., and carried via Internet and television across the country to an estimated 56 million children.

“If you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country,” Obama said in the speech. “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. The future of America depends on you.”

The decision by administration officials to broadcast the speech on a nationwide basis drew the ire of conservative groups and other parents who said it gave Obama a chance to preach a political agenda to students, and that it was a waste of school time.

Obama is not the first president to speak nationwide with students. President George H.W. Bush did the same thing in 1991, and a question-and-answer session between President Reagan and high school students was carried live in 1986.

Much of Obama's talk centered on his personal experience.

“My father left my family when I was 2 years old, and I was raised by a single mom who had to work and had struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn't always able to give us the things that other kids had,” he said. “There were times when I missed having a father in my life.

“So I wasn't always as focused as I should have been on school, and I did some things that I'm not proud of, and I got in more trouble than I should have.”

At Harding University High, a Charlotte magnet school, daily schedules were rearranged so all students would be finished with lunch and in class to watch the speech live at noon. No one asked to sit out, said Principal Alicisa Johnson.

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