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Fla. Principal On Showing Obama's Speech

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

At the Amos P. Godby High School in Tallahassee, Florida, students watched the president's speech on television in classrooms. Jean Ferguson is the principal there. And Ms. Ferguson, there are, what, about 1,300 students in your school?

Ms. JEAN FERGUSON (Principal, Amos P. Godby High School): Right. Today's count was 1,270.

BLOCK: Okay. Well, you gave students the option of opting out of watching the speech. How many chose to not watch?

Ms. FERGUSON: Seventy students.

BLOCK: And what did they do?

Ms. FERGUSON: They had a study hall in an adjoining room in their building.

BLOCK: And did they explain why they didn't want to watch?

Ms. FERGUSON: You know, some I had heard before today, you know, that their parents had an objection to it or, you know, these are adolescents, they'll opt out of just about anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I see…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FERGUSON: Defiant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, were you getting calls from parents saying, I don't want my…

Ms. FERGUSON: Last week, yes.

BLOCK: You were.

Ms. FERGUSON: Yes.

BLOCK: And what'd you tell them or what were they telling you?

Ms. FERGUSON: Well - I think what did they - wanted to know is that their student had options. It wasn't something that we were going to make mandatory and have a grade attached to it. And I really didn't think that was necessary, but I think it was important that the president wanted to address students.

BLOCK: You did think it was important.

Ms. FERGUSON: Yes, I do.

BLOCK: Why is that?

Ms. FERGUSON: One, he's the president of the United States. I think he does have a - especially for my students, a message that is similar, you know, in the background that's similar to theirs, that they have single parents or they're struggling, you know, with economic difficulties. Just this year, our free and reduced lunch went up nine percent this year.

BLOCK: You watched the speech yourself today in a classroom, is that right?

Ms. FERGUSON: That is correct.

BLOCK: And what did you think?

Ms. FERGUSON: I thought it was a great message. And those are the things that we say every day, you know, just about every minute to students. But coming from the president, you know, even if he gets the attention of one or two that could make this into, you know, a great experience. Public high school, you know, there's just so many opportunities here that sometimes I'm - I worry about the ones that let them go by.

BLOCK: The president talked in this speech about being the child of a single mother, about her having to struggle, about, you know, failure and the need to come back and to keep on trying. Was there a moment in the speech that particularly struck you, that really is stuck in your mind?

Ms. FERGUSON: That part about personal responsibility is so important to me, you know, I really do think your parents can care and the teachers definitely care, but until that student can actually start accepting some of that personal responsibility, it's tough pushing the car uphill.

BLOCK: Yeah, and a dose of reality in there, too. He was telling the kids, look, you can get this idea on television that you can be successful without hard work.

Ms. FERGUSON: Right.

BLOCK: And chances are, you're not going to be…

Ms. FERGUSON: Right.

BLOCK: …a huge rapper or a basketball star.

Ms. FERGUSON: Right. And to understand, you know, where are you in the progression of, you know, your goals, there are so many students that will say, I'm going to be a pediatrician, but they don't even like math and science. And I believe in the American dream. I want them to, too, but we all know that you just can't wish it, like some of them think they can. They have to have the hard work that goes along with it.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Ferguson, it's good to talk to you. Thank you.

Ms. FERGUSON: Well, thank you very much, Melissa, for your interest. Go cougars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: You had to get that in there.

Ms. FERGUSON: I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: That's Jean Ferguson. She's principal of Amos P. Godby High School in Tallahassee, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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