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In one L.A. classroom, Obama's speech faces technical difficulties

Instead of hearing directly from the president, students and visitors at Koreatown's Commonwealth Avenue Elementary get a hands-on lesson in perseverance, with a little help from Hello Kitty.

September 09, 2009|Howard Blume

Neither cable, Internet, radio nor a roomful of sheepish and harried adults could deliver the president's address to the 27 fifth-graders in Alice Cho's class at Commonwealth Avenue Elementary in Koreatown.

But the message of hard work and resilience got through.

The apparent culprit Tuesday morning was interference from a line of television vans in front of the school. Everything had worked perfectly Friday in a test, officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District said.

At 8:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the speech, L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines glanced at his watch.

"Has anybody got a radio?" he suggested, calling forth the technology of his own youth to fill in for the malfunctioning television and Internet. (Cortines recently turned 77.)

TV rabbit ears appeared on the scene but were no help.

The troubles detracted from a postcard moment for the nation's second-largest school system: dignitaries and a full media contingent in the recently built classroom of a talented teacher (whose job was spared by President Obama's stimulus dollars) at a high-poverty school where test scores have soared.

Commonwealth was the chosen L.A. site because it's on a year-round calendar; most L.A. Unified schools are not in session until today.

Obama flashed briefly on the screen, saying something about speaking in Virginia, before the signal went out again.

As a district administrator fiddled with a radio dial, school board President Monica Garcia offered: "We're learning when Plan A doesn't work, you try Plan B."

"That's one of the things the president is going to talk about," added U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller. "Sometimes things aren't easy."

Finally, stentorian presidential tones filled the room through the speakers of a pink-and-white Hello Kitty radio.

Obama told students they might develop the next iPhone or become a Supreme Court justice. Whatever the goal, he said: "I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. . . . You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. . . . The future of America depends on you."

The radio station's commentator then broke in, ready, it seemed, to slam Obama. An official hastily turned the dial, vainly seeking another broadcast.

At last, video streamed in: "Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework," the president said. The image suddenly froze until the president briefly reappeared saying something about the flu and washing hands.

At that point, Miller strode to the front and began to read the rest of the speech.

"I'm clearly not the president, but that's the best I can do," he said.

Students applauded politely when he reached the "God bless America" conclusion. And they managed to get the gist.

"I think the president is trying to tell us if we give up on something we want to do, then we won't get to do it. But if we try harder and learn more, we will get to achieve that," said Bastian Geiser, 10, who wants to be a soccer player or an archaeologist. He said that his parents welcomed the chance for students to hear Obama.

Odalys Ramos, 10, said that her parents supported her goal of graduating from college, which they were not able to do. And now, she said, she had an additional aspiration: "The speech that he made encouraged me to be president and help the country."

In La Canada Flintridge, parents expressed concerns that the speech would not air. Supt. James Stratton emphasized that teachers made the choice, and he encouraged them to work it into lessons.

In Hemet, the Dartmouth Middle School website noted that "teachers may be showing the president's speech on Thursday to students whose parents have given written permission."

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h oward.blume@latimes.com

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