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Students tune in

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Journal Staff Writer
       Life can be tough, but that's no excuse not to suck it up, go to class and do your homework.
    That, and the fact that an education is the key to future success, was the thrust of President Barack Obama's speech to the nation's students. At least the ones who saw and heard it.
    Huddled on the floor of the Jackson Middle School library on Tuesday, a group of eighth-graders found inspiration in a speech that had provoked intense controversy nationwide.
    "I kind of like how he had trouble and challenges, like we do," said Jackson student Tyler Montoya, 13.
    The speech, broadcast from a Virginia high school, was about 15 minutes long. However, there were moments when the sound gave out and the image froze at Jackson because of the heavy Internet use as classrooms across the Albuquerque district tried to stream the speech simultaneously.
    APS technology director Tom Ryan said Internet use was double that of an average school day.
    "It was our highest Internet use we've ever had in the district," he said.
    Obama's plan to air the speech had drawn fire during the past week, with some critics contending he was using the opportunity to promote a political agenda.
    "Any IDIOT knows that the Democratic Party would do exactly the same thing if it were a Republican president," Debbie D. Mitchell of Albuquerque wrote in a letter to the Journal.
    Most letter writers, though, said the speech would be inspirational and that watching it was a matter of showing respect to the nation's president.
    APS Superintendent Winston Brooks said last week that students could opt out of watching the address without fear of retaliation.
    The district didn't keep records of how many students had done so, but spokesman Rigo Chavez said he continued to receive phone calls this week from people on both sides of the issue. At Jackson, one student was kept home because of the address.
    The president, during his speech, touched on his upbringing by a single mother and told the students "the circumstances of your life — what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home — none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school."
    Daniella Lopez said she "liked how he said to be involved, to keep trying and keep trying, and we could get it."
    Jackson student Kelsey Theriot said she had friends in other schools whose parents wouldn't allow them to watch the speech.
    "My mom said it would be good for me to watch," she said.
    Teacher Lauradean Morganti used some of the U.S. Department of Education's lesson plans for the speech. She required students to complete the homework assignment: "Are we able to do what the president is asking of us?" "Does the speech make you want to do anything differently?" "What would you like to ask or tell the president?"
    Suggested lesson plans had drawn fire, particularly for a section that said students could write to the president and tell him how they could help him meet education goals. That section was later removed.
    Morganti said her students could read the speech later at home with their parents, or their parents could write a note saying they did not want their children to participate in the assignment.
    West Mesa High Principal Blanca Lopez said one parent called to make sure her son watched the speech.
    "He was in an English class (that wasn't watching)," Lopez said. "We allowed him to go see it."
    At Rio Rancho High School, Principal Richard VonAncken said 15 students opted out. They were sent to the school's Performing Arts Center where they were allowed to do homework or work on an alternative assignment given to them by their teachers.
    VonAncken said he received more than a dozen calls from parents last week, most saying they would not send their child to school that day if listening to the speech was mandatory.
    "I personally felt that the speech was pretty generic," VonAncken said. "He did not get into politics or use it as a platform for health care reform."
    Journal staff writer Elaine D. Briseño contributed to this report.

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