In Obama's speech, Florida students see themselves

Bradenton HeraldSeptember 8, 2009 

BRADENTON, Fla. — Jazmin Perez. Andoni Schultz. Shantell Steve.

They could've been Southeast High School students like Maria Velasquez, Ednert Jean-Fils and Samantha Young.

Rather, they were three students from other states whose success despite various obstacles were part of President Barack Obama's contested national back-to-school address Tuesday.

According to Manatee School District officials, the vast majority of students watched the president's speech, while some opted out with parents' notes.

None opted out at Southeast.

“My mom told me I had the choice and feels I should watch it,” sophomore Haley Parker said before the address. “I just don’t have to agree with what he says.”

Obama's main message was straightforward — students should take responsibility for their own success in school — and he illustrated that point with stories of those three students.

Perez, for example, came from a migrant family in Roma, Texas, learned to speak English and applied herself in school.

She is now at Brown University grad school, working toward becoming a doctor.

“He could’ve been talking about me,” said Velasquez, a sophomore who came from Mexico when she was 7 and wants to become a lawyer. “She had to endure a lot of things to be what she wanted to be. I have to endure things to reach my goals.”

Jean-Fils felt the same way, especially when the president talked of being raised by his mother.

“He was speaking from the heart the entire time, like he was speaking to me,” the sophomore said. “My mom talks about how my grandma raised five kids all by herself.”

And when Obama alluded to his own struggles as a student — getting in trouble, not being focused in class — Young connected with that.

“Sometimes when somebody is talking to you it’s blah, blah, blah,” the junior said. “But you could understand him because he went through these things.”

Some Southeast seniors found incentive in the president’s words, as well.

“It’s a motivational tool for us to really step it up, get going with what we need to do,” Charles Ramos said. “It inspired me to do a lot more than I’m doing now, to push myself to go far.”

“You can’t drop out and expect to have a good job and be successful,” said Monique Tucker, who plans to join the Air Force. “A lot of people don’t understand that. Everybody has to work hard. It was good to let everybody know it’s not going to just come to you.”

Jonathan Dowling agreed.

“I’m blessed, but it made me think I have to keep working hard and not get complacent,” said the Southeast Seminole star bound for the University of Florida.

Manatee Superintendent Tim McGonegal was on hand at SETV and listened along with the students.

“His message was appropriate for children — they’re in control of their own future,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure our children are accountable for their education. It can’t just be handed to them on a silver platter. They’re going to face obstacles though their careers, and he did a good job of stating that. Powerful stuff.”

The president’s words also resonated in teacher Gretta Sancho’s eighth-grade math class at Johnson Middle School.

Ashly Woods understood Obama’s challenge, that the circumstances of one’s life — what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have — is no excuse for neglecting one’s homework.

“If I can graduate high school and go to college, I’ll have a lot more opportunities than my family,” said Woods, 13.

Principal Omar Edwards said Obama’s words — “If you quit on school, you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country” — are key for students.

“Kids have to understand they matter,” he said.

Leading up to the speech, some conservatives said Obama would strike a political tone.

What did Manatee students think about the hoopla?

“I think it was ridiculous,” said Shaniya Thomas, 13. “He was basically hitting on points kids are concerned about, not what adults are concerned about.”

No Johnson students opted out.

At Gene Witt Elementary, 31 students out of 550 opted out of watching the speech, said Principal Myra Russell.

Courtney Chapin, 10, said she had opted out of hearing the speech at school, because her parents planned to record it and watch it with her later.

Among those who listened to the televised speech in teacher Laura Schuneman’s fifth-grade class were Alessandra Nakhla.

“It was a good speech because it told you to keep going. You can reach your dream, if you work hard for it,” the 10-year-old said.

Several of her 10-year-old classmates chimed in.

“It was awesome because it was President Obama, and it was inspiring,” said Melaina Jacoby. “It inspired me not to skip out on school, to follow your dreams and you can reach them by staying in school.”

“I thought it was an extremely inspiring speech,” said Megan Lynch. “It teaches me never to drop out of school, no matter how bad I’m doing. It was so encouraging for every kid in America because he’s such a good talker.”

“It encourages young people to express themselves,” said Kyle Fritz.

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