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OBAMA SPEECH WITHOUT HITCH

Few opt out in Hernando as the president addresses schoolchildren.

Brad Merschbach tried to stress the importance of the 15 minutes his eighth grade class was about to share with President Barack Obama.

"Rarely do you get a moment in history where the president is talking to you," Merschbach told his class at J.D. Floyd K-8 on Tuesday just before Obama appeared on the classroom's large projection screen. "I don't care which president it is. When the president talks directly to you, you listen."

That clearly was the sentiment of an overwhelming majority of the parents and guardians of Hernando's roughly 22,500 public school children despite the controversy that erupted last week over Obama's back-to-school address.

An informal survey by the St. Petersburg Times found that most of Hernando's 22 schools either showed the noontime speech live or recorded the address so teachers could - if they wanted to - show it later in the day or another time.

Administrators reached at schools where the speech was shown live reported very few opt-outs, with estimates ranging from 1 percent at Parrott Middle School to, at most, about 15 percent at Westside Elementary.

Those numbers almost certainly include students whose parents were okay with them watching the speech but neglected to bring back a permission slip. Those students had to sit out because the district required written permission.

"That way, we're covered," assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson told the Times last week when asked about the policy.

Moton Elementary principal Debi Vermette said at most, 10 percent of her school's 800 students didn't watch.

"The kids were excited," Vermette said. "It made them feel important."

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Obama's decision to address the nation's schoolchildren drew criticism from some conservative pundits and parents who expressed fears that the president would try to insert political messages into the address, "indoctrinate" the students, or try to burnish his image.

Hernando's central school office got some calls and e-mails expressing those sentiments last week. The number represented a small slice of the district's parents and guardians, but that was enough to prompt Jackson to require the permission slips.

The address turned out to be, as one local teacher put it, "a presidential pep rally."

"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems," Obama said during the address from a Virginia high school. "If you don't do that - if you quit on school - you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."

The White House released the text on Monday, quelling most of the uproar - there was not a word in it about socialism or public health care.

Dennis McGeehan, principal at Central High School, had decided his school would show the address even before he read the text.

"It's the president of the United States speaking to children about their responsibilities in school, and that's a good message for children to hear," McGeehan said.

Many administrators said the decision not to show the speech live Tuesday was based on logistics. The direction to send home permission slips came late last week, and Monday's holiday added to the time crunch.

Many students aren't even in class at noon; they're eating lunch in the cafeteria. Students who did not have permission to watch the speech live Tuesday took part in other lessons. At J.D. Floyd K-8, for example, fourth-graders watched an interactive DVD on desert geography.

Ray Pinder, principal at Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill, said his staff would send letters and permission slips home with students today so teachers can incorporate the speech into lesson plans.

"I wanted to make sure I was being equitable to the parents who wanted their kids to see it and those didn't, and I needed a little more time to set a procedure I felt comfortable with," Pinder said.

Jason Galitsky is among the teachers at Hernando High who plans to show the speech in the coming days. Galitsky called the brouhaha over the address "absolutely ridiculous."

"I don't see where the problems are and why the party lines had to be drawn," he said.

But there is a lesson here that transcends social studies, said Galitsky, who also teaches social psychology and thought the issue might be a good example during the unit on group behavior.

"Just about how some people were up in arms about this and so many others couldn't care less," he said.

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Back at Floyd, after the speech, teacher Merschbach asked his eighth graders what moved them about Obama's words.

"What I could be if I tried," Michael Truluck replied.

Meghan Proscia jotted down a quote.

"Don't let your failures define you," Proscia said. "Let your failures teach you."

After class, Sarah Hraiche said she respects the decision some parents made to keep their children from watching the speech. Hraiche said she was glad she did, though.

"I like Obama," Hraiche said. "I wanted him to win in the first place. He's cool."

And what did she glean from his words?

"I already get good grades," she said, "but I'm going to work even harder."

Editorial assistant Phyllis Day contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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