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Obama's speech not on some school's lesson plans

Technology, scheduling and academic priorities will keep the president out of many Southern California classrooms when he goes on the air Tuesday.

September 05, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg and Jason Song

President Obama's speech to students next week may be a "teachable moment," as some educators see it, but it will not be a command performance. A combination of scheduling, academic priorities and sheer bandwidth will keep the president out of many Southern California classrooms when he goes on the air Tuesday.

"We're an academic institution, and our responsibility is to cover specific content standards," said James Stratton, superintendent of schools for La Canada Unified School District, where the school year got off to a late and rocky start because of the nearby wildfires. In his district, he said, the speech will be shown only in those classes where it "has any relation to the California content standards for that particular class."

That's a tough bar for any politician to hurdle.

Most Southern California districts seem to be at least a little more enthusiastic about the speech, which the White House has said will focus on the need for students to take personal responsibility for their education. But that doesn't mean their students will necessarily see it.

Most Los Angeles Unified students will miss the speech unless they watch it at home: The academic year doesn't begin until Wednesday in the majority of district schools, so only the 87 that are on a year-round schedule will have the opportunity to show it. One of them, Commonwealth Avenue Elementary, will host U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller.

The speech will be broadcast live at 9 a.m. Pacific time on Tuesday.

"We have hundreds of parents who are calling and saying, 'Can't you change it?' " said district spokeswoman Ellen Morgan. District officials have had to explain that they have no control over the president's schedule.

Obama's speech has raised hackles among conservatives, who see it as a way for the Democratic president to force-feed his political views to children. But Morgan said L.A. Unified headquarters has received only two calls from parents who were irate about the speech.

Commonwealth Avenue Elementary Ken Lopez-Maddox, a former Republican assemblyman who is a school board trustee for the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County, said he has no problem with the president addressing students and schools.

"To the degree he's emphasizing education, I think it's great," he said.

The district issued a news release saying it was not "encouraging nor discouraging classroom viewing," and urging parents who do not want their children to watch the speech to contact school principals.

Maddox said he respected the rights of parents to choose what their children watch, but added: "I would think it odd that they wouldn't want them to know what the president is going to say."

Schools at the Newport-Mesa Unified School District will not show the president's speech live because of bandwidth limitations and because Tuesday is the first day of classes. "We have many things to accomplish on the first day of school, and this will give principals and teachers the opportunity to tend to several important tasks . . . as well as an opportunity to exercise their discretion," said Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard in a letter to parents.

However, he also called the speech "a unique opportunity for students to hear from the president of the United States," and said schools could show the speech later. First, they must notify parents, who will have to complete a waiver if they don't want their children to watch -- a protocol that some other districts also are adopting.

"Once we let them know that they could opt out, that it's not a mandatory decision, parents really calmed down," said Maria Garcia, a spokeswoman for San Bernardino City Unified School District. Many parents had been "very concerned" about the speech until they heard that, she said.

Like many districts, San Bernardino is leaving the final decision about whether to show the speech up to teachers, and the response has been "all over the map," Garcia said. "At some campuses, they're overwhelmingly interested. At some, it's only some."

At Davidson Elementary, Principal Joyce Payne said nearly all her teachers in grades higher than kindergarten will show the speech, which she expects to be "a wonderful learning experience for kids." She also anticipates that her teachers will use the accompanying classroom materials prepared by the White House.

Brad McDuffee, the principal of Highland Pacific Elementary School, also in San Bernardino, said his teachers will not be showing the speech -- but as in Newport-Mesa, it's a technical issue. "We're really not wired for it," he said.

McDuffee said he has heard from several parents who oppose the broadcast. "I was a little taken aback, because he is the president, and I think . . . it needs to be broadcast, and everybody needs to participate."

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mitchell.landsberg @latimes.com

jason.song@latimes.com

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