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After reading a copy of the speech that President Barack Obama delivered to the nation’s schoolchildren – and a copy of the White House lesson plan that would eventually be pulled back – District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo wasn’t sure what all the hubbub was about. On a TV newscast one night last week, that’s exactly what he told millions of Americans.
In an interview with CBS Evening News reporter Dean Reynolds, Cavallo explained why Forest Park students watched the president’s Sept. 8 address. Across the country, parents and media pundits railed against the dangers of exposing children to the president’s speech, which critics said was sure to be full of socialist indoctrination. But meanwhile, in Forest Park, not a single parent had asked Cavallo about pulling their child from school.
“All the rhetoric that’s flying around out there has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with the message being delivered,” Cavallo told the Review a day after Obama’s address.
And when the president’s message was broadcast across the country, every child in Forest Park’s public schools sat and listened. Hearing the speech was mandatory. Several hours later, Forest Park was riding the nation’s airwaves.
That evening’s newscast on CBS, anchored by Katie Couric, featured students at Betsy Ross Elementary, where, during the president’s speech, a television crew shot footage and gathered reactions. The network identified the small school on Marengo Avenue through a producer who lives nearby in Oak Park. Interviews with the superintendent produced at least one salient point – that parents would not dictate day-to-day instruction.
“We don’t allow parents to opt their kids out of fractions, for instance,” Cavallo said of his comments to CBS.
At the same time Forest Park’s schools were making an appearance on the national news, parents gathered at Field-Stevenson Elementary for the first open house of the school year. Principal Bob Giovannoni said that in meeting with parents that evening, not once was the president’s speech a subject of conversation.
Like the superintendent, Giovannoni read Obama’s prepared remarks anticipating a controversial message. He found none. As for the outcry that swept across parts of the U.S., Giovannoni said he wholeheartedly agreed with the superintendent’s position.
“I can’t ask you today if this math problem about elephants and donkeys is appropriate or if you think it’s too political,” Giovannoni said. “We’d get nothing done.”
Had administrators, or parents, decided the president’s remarks were objectionable, those concerns likely would have been discussed, said Cavallo. To varying degrees, parents hold sway over what happens in the classroom by electing school board members. Also, when new books and curricula are considered for adoption, parents are given a chance to raise concerns.
However, Cavallo suggested he’s not inclined to stifle the president.
“Just because something is controversial doesn’t mean it can’t be a learning opportunity,” he said.