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What can the president’s words of encouragement mean for students?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Standing at the podium in front of a blue background emblazoned with the words “My Education, My Future,” President Barack Obama delivered his second back-to-school speech in front of 600 students at Julia R. Masterman High School.

For 20 minutes Obama talked to the wide-eyed students – chosen randomly from the total student population of 1,205 to sit in the auditorium to hear the speech while the rest of the students listened in their classes via live Web stream – about education being the key to success and the importance of working hard, staying focused, and embracing challenges.

As I sat in the packed auditorium I wondered why he chose to deliver his inspirational message of hard work and hope for the future at this particular school, already a shining example of a school doing great things. I wondered what students thought about Obama’s choice, and if they were thinking what I was thinking – that maybe Obama should have delivered his educational pep talk to students at an underperforming school. After all, aren’t they the ones who need it most?

And so I asked.

Kelly Ca, a senior and Masterman’s student body president, said that she was surprised that the President chose her school for his remarks “for the sheer fact that it is a small school and I know that a lot of people outside of Philadelphia don’t know about it, but I know that with Masterman’s reputation…Masterman is a great school and Barrack Obama’s choice wasn’t a bad one at all.”

Veri Seo, a 12th grader who already has her sights set on going to graduate school, said “it was a very nice surprise,” and that even though “as a Masterman student we already have a lot of motivation from our ourselves, teachers, friends, and each other, it catapulted our level of motivation even further.”

I, like Kelly Ca, don’t think Obama’s choice was a bad choice, I’m just not sure it was the best choice. Why deliver this speech to a school that has a 99 percent four-year graduation rate; a school where 98 percent of the students scored proficient in reading on the 2009 PSSAs and 100 percent scored proficient in math; a school where in 2009 there was only one out of school suspension, and a school where average daily attendance is almost 100 percent? Judging from the data, these students are already doing all the things that Obama instructed them to do in his remarks.

That’s not to say that students already on the right track and headed for college – students like Kelly Ca, who plans to study pre-med and has applied to Harvard and University of Pennsylvania – don’t need words of encouragement to motivate them to keep pressing toward their goals. We all need positive reinforcement.

But as I was sitting among tomorrow’s leaders and possibly a future president, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more of an impression the President’s appearance and speech would have made on students at Overbrook, Sayre, South Philadelphia, Vaux, West Philadelphia, or several other of the District’s schools where four-year graduation rates are far below 50 percent and test scores are frighteningly low.

I can’t help but wonder what hard exteriors would have been softened because the President stopped by to tell them that they too can make it despite obstacles in their schools and communities. Imagine how the walls that so many struggling students in underperforming schools put up may have crumbled if Obama stepped off the stage at one of these schools – as he did at Masterman after his speech – to shake students’ hands, give a warm smile, and a few kind words.

Granted, the speech was streamed on the Web for anyone with Internet access to see and District teachers were encouraged through a letter sent out by Superintendent Ackerman the day before to watch the speech with their classes. But there’s just something to be said for having the leader of the free world standing right in your auditorium telling you face-to-face that “the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life”, and then sharing with you that even he, growing up, faced uncertain times in his academics, was raised in a single parent household without a father, and struggled with his identity having been the child of biracial parents.

Imagine what those words ringing out over a podium at King, FitzSimons, Benjamin Franklin, or Germantown would have meant to the student thinking about dropping out, the student who has faced multiple suspensions and now possible expulsion, the student who has been truant for more days than he has been in class, or the student who wants to go to college but feels its unattainable because no one in his family even graduated from high school let alone a university.

Obama did veer away from his prepared remarks slightly at one point in his speech to say:

“I’m sort of preaching to the choir here because I know that’s the kind of culture of excellence that you promote at Masterman. But I’m not just speaking only to you. I’m speaking to kids all across the country and I want them to all hear that message…this is the kind of excellence that we have to promote in all of America’s schools.”

Of course, excellence should be promoted in every school across the nation and yesterday students across the country had the opportunity to hear how their futures depend on what they do in the classroom today. I just wish President Obama had chosen to deliver this message from a school attended by those students who need to hear it the most.

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