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SO, WAS THE FUSS WORTH IT?

After nearly a week of outrage and indignation on both sides, President Barack Obama finally addresses America's schoolchildren.

The 30 or so students at Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary in St. Petersburg sat with fried chicken and apple sauce on their desks, and President Barack Obama on the screen. Most of them were third-graders, bright-eyed and twitchy-legged. They couldn't help but pull their arms into their shirts and polish off Cool Cow milks with a slurp.

And yet, when the speech was over, and the teacher asked what they learned, a dozen hands shot into the air.

It took the president 2,670 words. It took 8-year-old Zola Blanks-Sprague three to sum up.

"Study and try."

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It's unclear how many students around Tampa Bay watched President Obama's address.

Districts left the decision to show or not to show in the hands of principals and teachers. Some said okay. Many did not. Some said they didn't have time to prepare or didn't want it to interfere with lesson plans. Some were administering new reading assessments that had already been scheduled.

At schools where the address was shown, days of boiling controversy and confusion didn't appear to prompt many students to opt out of watching it.

But the specter of angry parents - real or imagined - continued to play a role.

Wayne Whitney, principal at Bardmoor Elementary in Largo, would not even say whether his school showed the speech.

"It's a little sensitive," he said.

At some schools, the overabundance of caution lit its own backlash - the other way. When Karen Mariscal found out her daughter's teacher at Dunedin Elementary wouldn't show the speech, she taped a sign to her van: "Dunedin Schools Reject Patriotism."

"The School Board just took a hands off approach," Mariscal said. "They're afraid to stand up for anything."

After the speech, other parents asked: What was the problem?

For days, newspapers and blog sites had been aflame with statements like this from Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida: Obama wants to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda."

Tuesday, students heard statements like this from the president: No matter what you want to do with you life - I guarantee you'll need an education to do it.

The speech "made you really think," said Kenya Johnson, a ninth-grader at Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High charter school in Hillsborough. "Just because your parents didn't have the best life and didn't provide you with the best things, you could still get a good education. They didn't go to college, but you can break that barrier."

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Spring Hill. J.D. Floyd K-8.

Tears streamed down the cheeks of a fourth-grader with strawberry blond hair.

As her classmates watched the president take the stage, the girl told principal Joe Clifford that her mom said she could watch. But Hernando County required parents to provide permission slips - and the girl didn't appear to have her parents' okay.

"You can watch the president's speech at home later," Clifford said. "It's no big deal."

The girl and four other students were taken to a side room. They plopped down in front of laptops. They put on headphones.

"Why are we wearing these?" one of the other girls said. "So we don't hear that?"

She pointed through the cracked door, to the blue glow of the TV in the other room.

"That's right," the teacher said.

School officials realized later that the tearful girl had permission to watch Obama after all.

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New Port Richey. Gulf High.

Claudia Alwood's AP European history students sat in rapt attention, flipping through the written text of Obama's speech as he spoke.

Not one of the 24 students left the class. The school media center - the designated location for teens who decided not to listen - sat empty of students opting out.

"It's a message from the president," said sophomore Garret Williams. "Even if it's bad, I can form my own opinion."

After the speech, the students talked about the politics that swirled around it. Sophomore Samantha Cresoe said her parents had initial reservations about the lessons Obama might offer.

But after they read the speech on Monday, she said, "it changed the mood."

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Gulfport. Boca Ciega High.

Band director Frank Williams started sixth period with a question to his 19 students: "Is there anyone here whose parents have forbidden you from watching the president's speech today?"

No hands.

"Is there anyone here whose parents encouraged you to watch the president's speech?"

Six hands.

When the 18-minute speech was over, Williams had more questions.

"How many of you heard anything you objected to?"

No hands.

"How many of you found something positive in what the president had to say?"

Lots of hands.

Kevona Jenkins, a 17-year-old who earns A's and B's but struggles with math, liked it when Obama encouraged students to stay on track even if a family member loses a job.

"Focus," Williams said. "That's what we've been concentrating on this year, right?"

The students nodded. Williams had one more question.

"How many students here really needed to hear that speech?"

Every hand went up.

Times staff writer Tom Marshall and editorial assistant Phyllis Day contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

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