Before President Barack Obama addressed a crowd of more than 2,500 supporters at Canyon Springs High School on Wednesday morning, he sat down to talk shop with three teachers.
Lori Henrickson, an Earth sciences teacher at Del Webb Middle School; Claritssa Sanchez, a government and world history teacher at Canyon Springs High School; and Isaac Barron, a Rancho High School government and world history teacher, chatted with the president for close to a half-hour about class sizes, school funding, No Child Left Behind and other education matters.
Sanchez then introduced Obama to the gymnasium crowd. During the president's 25-minute speech about education, he supported calls for more teachers, smaller class sizes, equal educational opportunities for all and lowering the cost of higher education.
"We should be hiring more teachers, especially in areas like math and science, where we need to be at the cutting edge," Obama said. "If we want America to lead in the 21st century, we've got to give all our children the best education possible -- from the day they start in preschool to the day they start their career -- because other countries are racing, they are doing everything they can to out-educate us because they know that means they'll be able to out-compete us. They know the new businesses and new industries will take root and create jobs wherever the best-educated, most highly skilled workers are."
After the teachers had a day to reflect on their meeting with the president and his remarks, Barron and Henrickson spoke of the experience. Their comments were edited for clarity.
How were you selected to meet with President Obama?
Barron: Well, because I'm the advisor for the Hispanic Student Union at Rancho, when people have issues or questions about policies that affect Latino students, they will often ask for my thoughts. So, various people -- including Sen. Harry Reid's office, Rep. Shelley Berkley's office and now Obama's office -- use me as a sounding board because I'm someone in the trenches.
Henrickson: I'm a supporter -- I've registered voters and made phone calls. People with the campaign were familiar with me and knew that education was important to me. I think they thought that I'd have a unique experience to share as a middle school science teacher.
OK, so you're an Obama supporter. Is there anything about his first term that disappointed you or you want him to pay more attention to going forward?
Barron: I wouldn't call them disappointments with the president necessarily, but I have disappointments with the entire process and how government is operating. I think the president has dealt with an obstructionist Congress the past few years. There have also been problems with elected members of the president's own party not being on board to get things done.
Henrickson: I know it has not been perfect, but I believe his intentions are genuine. I hope that in the future, he keeps those goals and keeps moving toward them.
What was the first thing you noticed about the president?
Barron: I've met the president before, but this was my first time sitting down and talking with him like this. My colleagues, Ms. Sanchez and Ms. Henrickson, were very nervous, so I told them, "Talk to him like you would one of your colleagues."
He is very personable and extremely easy to talk to. While people who don't like the president might not change their political views if they had a chance to sit down with him, I think they would have a different perspective on him. ... I'm not a Romney supporter, and he does not relate to me in any way, but he is probably not the demon he is made out to be in the far leftist circles. It's too bad we're not able to see more of our elected leaders in this kind of fashion. I will say that you did see strains of being the leader of our country in his appearance; he looks different than four years ago.
Henrickson: It was surreal for me. He was a real person and wasn't just that guy on TV. He didn't just come in and say, "This is how it is." I was afraid that he would want to tell us things more than hear our perspective. But he was really listening. He asked us questions, and he wanted to hear what we had to say.
What did you think of the president's initiative to offer waivers to No Child Left Behind, of which Nevada took advantage?
Barron: I thanked him profusely for allowing states to apply for waivers. In my opinion, No Child Left Behind has been used as a weapon against public education. I pointed out that a school like Rancho has multiple challenges that a private school would never encounter. We have to take every kid who walks through our doors, whether they are a future Rhodes Scholar or speak no English, whether they have a learning disability or are smart as a whip.
Henrickson: I really believe that the Nevada Growth Model (the new state criteria that will replace No Child Left Behind in measuring school progress) is a great model, and I'm excited to get to use it more. It tracks all kids' growth, whereas before it was only looking at the kids who were passing. With the program now, if a kid is not performing well, it looks at how much we've been able to improve their performance even if they don't pass the assessment. It's a great step. With No Child Left Behind, if a school didn't meet its adequate yearly progress goal, it felt like everything was a failure.
The federal government contributes about 10 percent of the cost of K-12 budgets. What can government do to improve education and make your jobs easier?
Barron: For me, one of the biggest things was deferred action. That was a game-changer, and now we need a permanent plan and comprehensive immigration reform. That program affected hundreds of students from Rancho, and I'm sure it has sparked renewed interest in education at all levels. I bet many people are enrolling in GED programs now, and adults are going back to school in droves. They can use their education to get jobs, pay taxes and improve their lives. Years from now, we'll wonder why we didn't do it sooner.
Henrickson: The federal government should serve as a guide for the states. They should offer guidance and assistance but not necessarily tell states that you have to test on this or that. I think they should provide support for each state to tackle what it sees as its specific problems. It may be class size reduction in Nevada or better assessments back East. They should be the guide to help states accomplish their goals.
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