Obama to students: Work hard, focus on education

President Barack Obama greets NCAA Champion student athletes on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 13, 2010. President Barack Obama greets NCAA Champion student athletes on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 13, 2010. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
By Darlene Superville
Associated Press Writer / September 13, 2010

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WASHINGTON—In a pep talk to the nation's students as they settle back into school, President Barack Obama will tell them that nothing is beyond their reach as long as they're willing to dream big, work hard and stay focused on learning.

Obama will deliver that message Tuesday during his second back-to-school address, this time from a Philadelphia school.

"Nobody gets to write your destiny but you," Obama says in the speech, which the White House released a day early so people could read the president's remarks beforehand and judge the contents for themselves.

"Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing -- absolutely nothing -- is beyond your reach. So long as you're willing to dream big. So long as you're willing to work hard. So long as you're willing to stay focused on your education," he says.

After the White House announced last year's speech, some conservatives accused the president of trying to foist a political agenda on children. Some parents said they'd pull their children from class to keep them from hearing Obama's remarks.

But that type of outcry is largely missing this year.

In both speeches, Obama urged students to stay in school, study hard and take responsibility for their education. He also tried to motivate students by using his earlier-in-life slacking off as an example.

For the Tuesday speech, Obama says nothing will affect students' success in life as much as their education.

"The kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school," he says. "In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you'll go in life."

Obama, who was raised by a single mother who often rose before dawn to tutor him before work and school, said government, educators and parents have a responsibility to prepare students for classroom success. But students have responsibilities, too, he said.

"Here's your job. Showing up to school on time. Paying attention in class. Doing your homework. Studying for exams. Staying out of trouble," Obama said. "That kind of discipline and drive -- the kind of hard work -- is absolutely essential for success."

Obama says he knows that is true because he didn't always have the drive.

He recalls a conversation with his mother about his slipping grades, how he hadn't started filling out college applications and how he was being "casual" about his future. As he started to tell his mother he didn't need to hear that from her, Obama says she cut him off, gave him a hard stare and asked if he remembered what it was like to put in a little effort.

Obama says it was jolting to hear that from his mother.

"But eventually, her words had their intended effect," he says. "I got serious about my studies. I made an effort. And I began to see my grades -- and my prospects -- improve. And I know that if hard work could make the difference for me, it can make the difference for you, too."

Obama went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Columbia University and a law degree from Harvard -- two of the nation's best schools.

Obama plans to deliver this year's speech from the Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration school in Philadelphia. The Department of Education last week designated Masterman, as the school is commonly known, as a Blue Ribbon school. That's the federal designation for high-achieving schools or schools that have improved significantly and helped close achievement gaps among disadvantaged and minority students.

More than 90 percent of Masterman's 1,150 fifth- through 12th-graders score proficient or advanced on state standardized reading and math tests.

Last year, the Department of Education also was criticized for distributing proposed lesson plans with the speech, including a section that later was changed that asked students to write about how they could help the president.

There is no accompanying curriculum for this year's speech, said White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai.

Schools were not required to air last year's speech. After the White House released the president's 2009 speech early, many critics backed off and some schools agreed to air Obama speech after all. Obama spoke from an Arlington, Va., school.

Schools also are not required to air the president's remarks Tuesday, either, though some are giving parents an opportunity to pull their kids from class during the broadcast.

In the speech, Obama was announcing the second Commencement Challenge, a nationwide contest in which schools compete to land him as their graduation speaker. Obama spoke at Kalamazoo Central High School's graduation in Kalamazoo, Mich., last June.


Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia contributed to this report.



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