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Obama speech impresses local students Most districts let schools, teachers decide on airing talk

President Obama was a big hit Tuesday at Sloan's Woodrow Wilson School.

Teacher Carolyn Segal guided her fifth-graders through a spirited discussion about responsibility, goal-setting and the value of education immediately after showing the president's televised remarks.

For the sake of perspective, the students also watched a video of a speech that President George H.W. Bush gave at a school when he was president in 1991 that emphasized many of the same themes.

"They were very similar," said Maris Schreier, 9, a Woodrow Wilson fifth-grader. "Education, pay attention to the teachers, stuff like that. It was pretty cool."

Many schools nationwide chose not to show the Obama speech after critics charged that it would have political and ideological overtones.

Like most local school districts, Cheektowaga-Sloan left it to individual schools and teachers to decide whether to air the speech. At Woodrow Wilson, which includes grades 3-5, about 75 percent of the students watched it, said Principal Andrea Galenski.

Elsewhere, a majority of the elementary and middle school teachers chose to show the address at the Charter School for Applied Technologies in the Town of Tonawanda, the largest charter school in the Buffalo area, said Thomas R. Lucia, a school spokesman.

But at Applied Technologies' high school, a series of "complaint calls" from parents prompted school officials to show the noon speech after dismissal time for students who chose to attend.

In the Lake Shore School District, fourth- and fifth-graders watched the speech, and so did a majority of middle school students, said Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey.

"I thought it was a very informative speech and conveyed a message that we as educators would all welcome," Rabey said. "I didn't see any political fodder."

The speech was not an issue in Buffalo Public Schools and several local school districts because they do not begin instruction until today.

In the speech, Obama said: "Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide."

Despite widespread national controversy leading up to Obama's talk, Cheektowaga-Sloan Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski said it was a nonpartisan and effective learning experience.

"Unfortunately, I think we're losing focus here," he said of the controversy. "We ought to have respect for the office, whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican. If it's something good for the kids, if it's a positive message, let's use it."

To underline that approach, Woodrow Wilson's Segal showed her students the 1991 Bush speech before Obama's televised appearance at a Virginia high school.

Having the students watch was a good way to reinforce positive messages in a personal and attention-grabbing way, said Galenski, the Woodrow Wilson principal.

"What better role model is there than the president of the United States?" she said. "I think it was very appropriate."

So did Segal's class.

The majority of her students were waving their arms in the air volunteering to offer their comments as they summarized the messages of both Bush and Obama.

"I learned that you may not get 100 or an 'A' on every test you take, but you have to put forth the effort," said Austin Nowinski, 10. "That says I'm not the only one who thinks that."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, spoke favorably of Obama's speech during a visit to Kenmore West High School.

"We want the president to be there as a role model for kids, encouraging them to stay in school, do their homework and not drop out," she said.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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