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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Districts let teachers opt to air speech

President Barack Obama will be talking to schoolchildren Tuesday. It’s unclear how many of them in the Inland Northwest will hear him.

Local school districts are taking a cautious approach to airing the speech – billed as an effort to encourage kids to stay in school and work hard – on the heels of a small but vocal opposition from parents concerned that it’s trying to smuggle a political message.

At least one district in the region, Coeur d’Alene, won’t air the speech at all, citing bad timing. The speech, set for 9 a.m. Tuesday, comes on the first day of school.

Most other districts in the region will leave the decision to individual teachers and allow students to opt out if they find the speech objectionable. None of the several districts contacted by The Spokesman-Review on Thursday planned to air it schoolwide.

Objections to the speech have cropped up on conservative Web sites and radio stations, with commentators encouraging parents to keep their kids home Tuesday. The president’s critics say the speech is “indoctrination.” Others say the speech is merely intended to encourage students to work hard and stay in school, a message meant to put a dent in the country’s dropout rate.

“I think education is high on this president’s agenda,” said Karin Short, associate superintendent for teaching and learning for Spokane Public Schools, the region’s largest district. “I’m not surprised a president would want to reach out and encourage” students.

Short said administrators at Spokane Public Schools had received only a few calls; at West Valley, only one call of concern had come in Thursday afternoon. At Central Valley, though, many parents have called and e-mailed their concerns that the speech will be too political, said spokeswoman Melanie Rose.

More than 30 e-mails have been received at the superintendent’s office alone, she said.

“We have heard quite a bit from our parents in Central Valley,” she said.

Rose said that because the speech will be broadcast on the first day of the school year in the morning, elementary and most high school students won’t be in class yet. Among the middle schools, teachers can decide whether to show it, but she expects that most will not, in large part because of the timing.

“I think it’s unlikely that many of them will use it, (but) it’s up to the teachers,” she said. In classes where the speech is aired, “if parents object, children can opt out.”

West Valley is treating the president’s speech the way it might handle an edgy movie in literature class – sending home a note for parents and allowing them to have their student excused.

“It’s the teacher’s decision whether it’s appropriate for the class,” said spokeswoman Sue Shields, and students can opt out. Short said the key factor for teachers in Spokane Public Schools is whether the speech is appropriate for the content of the class. She sent a note to teachers Wednesday, encouraging those who want to air the speech to be sensitive to students who may be “concerned about the content” and to provide alternative activities for those who don’t want to watch it.

“If a social studies teacher wants to show it, that is their choice,” she said.

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