obama_ed21The President’s “Back to School Message” has caused quite a stir. I read in the Pensacola News Journal that Escambia County schools are not planning to show the address because they say it will cut into valuable class time. Could be a reasonable claim in these times of constant standardized test preparation. But… let’s just say that claim struck me as odd considering a recent conversation I had with my daughter. What follows is my letter to Malcolm Thomas, Superintendent of Schools for Escambia County.

Mr. Thomas,
I appreciate what you’re doing with the school system. For what it’s worth, I voted for you and think you are doing what you feel is best for the students. But….

When I read your quote in the PNJ Friday, my jaw dropped. You say, “We’re in a district where our students struggle. We have bell-to-bell instruction, and we don’t want to waste a single minute.” Sounds nice. But…

My daughter is a middle school student in Escambia County and earlier this week she told me one of her teachers keeps a stack of magazines for the students to read in their downtime. “What magazines?” I asked. “It’s a stack of People magazines.” she says. I thought she was joking but she wasn’t. I still can’t believe it. A gossip magazine in, get this, her Language Arts class.

After I vented to my wife and calmed down, I second guessed myself. Maybe I’m over reacting. So I picked up the current issue of People. Just from the cover I get: “Kate Strikes Back” about the Jon and Kate divorce. “LeAnn & Eddie Take Their Love Public” and best of all, “Gerard & Jen, Their Sexy Night Out”. Nope. Not over reacting.

So I was in the process of figuring out if I’m going to make a big deal about this or just let it go and make sure my daughter brings other, more appropriate material with her to read during this “down time”. Then I read your quote in the article about the district not showing the President’s address. This is the point where my jaw dropped.

We don’t have time to interrupt our “bell to bell” educational schedule for an address by the President of the United States to our children about the importance of education. But we have time during the middle school day to catch up on the sex lives of Hollywood stars. That just doesn’t add up.

There may be a time and a place for gossip magazines or video games or other mindless distractions. But that time is not in the classroom.

There is also a time for vigorous political debate. But our children shouldn’t be used as pawns. My personal politics tend to lean to the left and I love a good natured debate. But even if I have differences with someone ideologically, I can still respect them as a fellow human being. We’re all just trying to do the best we can on this crazy ride. I say that to say this. I wasn’t a big fan of President Bush’s policies but I respect the man and think he was doing what he felt was best. So when he came to Pensacola for a rally at the Civic Center a few years ago, I checked my daughters out of school and took them to see the President of the United States in person. An experience I don’t think they will ever forget and an experience that both of their teachers felt was very worthwhile. The school work they missed that day was easily made up and my older daughter wrote a short essay about the day.

I realize “in person” and “on television” are different experiences but you dismiss the address by saying “We do not let teachers just watch television” like they’re watching soap operas or something. It’s the President of the United Sates. Disagreements or not, (and I have my own on policy as well) encouraging student to study hard and stay in school is always an important message. Yes, some children will be bored. Some will just parrot what they hear at home. But some may actually be inspired. It may be a version of the same message they alway hear but it carries extra weight coming from the President speaking directly to the students. But…

I guess if they don’t get to hear it from the source, they can always read about it in next week’s People Magazine. Maybe they’ll do some in depth coverage of the President’s choice of suit and tie for the address.

Thanks for your time. Have a great weekend.
Brian Butler

Mr. Thomas was kind enough to reply in a timely manner. He and the district have been bombarded with complaints over the past few days so the letter is more than likely a stock response that they have prepared. I’m okay with that, for now, understanding the immediate pressure he is under and the impossibility of replying to each individual message. I’ll address the magazine thing with him later. (He is a Facebook friend of mine:-) Here is his reply.

You are reading a few statements from a 15 minute interview.

There are numerous logistical issues with showing a live event to students across a large school district.

Some of the reasons most schools will be recording the address rather than watching the event live are:

- timing of address – the speech will occur in the middle of lunch schedules and the day after a holiday
– our district is conducting mandatory assessments in grades K through 10 on Tuesday
– the address is not time sensitive; the content does not necessarily have to be viewed in real time
– technology issues related to streaming video across the school district to all classrooms at the same moment; this may create bandwidth issues for us
– recording allows use of the address at a time of the teacher / school’s choosing; for some students / classes the address may not be appropriate for content or age
– allows the teachers time to view the material so that appropriate activities are developed to follow the media presentation

I have also recorded a video cast that discusses how the President’s address is being handled.

You can access the video clip at the following web address:

http://superintendent.escambia.k12.fl.us/video/president.wmv

Not a bad explanation. An article on the front page of today’s News Journal talked about the flap and all the emails that came in pro and con to the Superintendent’s office. The  paper asked for the emails as a matter of public record and printed quotes from some of them. I was so hoping mine would be quoted but no. I guess it wasn’t inflammatory enough. :-)

BLB