President Obama to welcome U.S. students back to school with speech at Masterman in Philadelphia

Tamika Miles (left), 11, a sixth grader at Masterman, and Kelly Ca, student-body president, speaking with reporters. Tamika will lead the Pledge of Allegiance for the president's visit.
Tamika Miles (left), 11, a sixth grader at Masterman, and Kelly Ca, student-body president, speaking with reporters. Tamika will lead the Pledge of Allegiance for the president's visit.
Posted: September 14, 2010

Tamika Miles is 11, a sixth grader at the prestigious Masterman School. She's a serious girl with two long pigtails, an impressive vocabulary, and a strong belief that Tuesday will be the biggest day of her life so far.

At 1 p.m., President Obama is scheduled to deliver his second annual back-to-school speech at the elite public school, and Tamika was chosen to lead hundreds of people in the Pledge of Allegiance.

"It's, like, the most important thing in my life," Tamika said. "It's just really amazing to see a politician in real life - with my own eyes."

On Monday, Masterman's halls were overrun with Secret Service officers, White House advance staff, and Philadelphia School District maintenance people, and Tamika was attempting to remain calm.

Once, she and her grandmother, who is raising her, waited for four hours only to catch a glimpse of the back of then-candidate Barack Obama's head at a rally.

But this is the real deal, said Tamika, who lives in Northwest Philadelphia and has considered a career as a Supreme Court justice but confesses to being afraid of law school.

She knows the most she'll be able to do is shake Obama's hand, she said, but if she did get five minutes with him, she would say, "I'm glad that you're trying to make an effort to fix the economy and the recession."

White House staffers descended on the school on Thursday, when the district got two pieces of good news - that Masterman, at 17th and Spring Garden Streets, is a 2010 national Blue Ribbon school, and that the president would be speaking there. Principal Marjorie Neff gave up her two-day school holiday Thursday and Friday to help start preparations.

But it took a little convincing.

"For about two minutes, I was concerned that this was an elaborate scam or hoax," said Neff, who's been principal of the school for fifth- through 12th-graders for five years.

Now certain that the visit is indeed happening, Neff and her staff had to figure out how 600 of the school's 1,200 students would be chosen to sit in the auditorium for the speech.

They decided that homerooms from each grade would be randomly selected to attend the event, as would staffers. Everyone else will watch in their classrooms via live Web stream.

The White House Monday night released the text of Obama's speech. In mentioning the school, a portion of what he will say is this: ". . . Here is what I came to Masterman to tell you: Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. 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.

"That last part is absolutely essential – because an education has never been more important. I'm sure there will be times in the months ahead when you're staying up late cramming for a test, or dragging yourselves out of bed on a rainy morning, and wondering if it's all worth it. Let me tell you, there is no question about it. Nothing will have as great an impact on your success in life as your education."

As the school prepared for Obama's visit, Neff had to field quite a few phone calls from "anyone with any connection to the school, who wants to know, 'Can I be invited?' " (The answer: A polite no.)

No one told her why Masterman was chosen by the White House, but Neff has a hunch.

"If I were going to look for a school that represents the diversity of our nation and high expectations for students, I'd pick Masterman," the principal said.

The school is racially and economically diverse - 44 percent of students are white, 29 percent are African American, 18 percent are Asian, and 6 percent are Latino. Forty-four percent of students live in poverty.

Spots are tough to come by - roughly 10 applications are received for each of the 165 seats in each Masterman fifth-grade class. Students must have high grades and test scores and good behavior to be considered for admission.

This is Kelly Ca's eighth year at Masterman. A senior and the student government president, she will introduce the president during "the two most important minutes of my life," she said Monday.

Kelly, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia, is keenly aware of the advantages she has going to a school that consistently ranks tops in Pennsylvania on state exams and among the best 100 high schools in the country.

She knows that a diploma from Masterman will help her reach her goal of going to the University of Pennsylvania or Harvard University, of becoming a doctor. It's the least she can do for her parents, immigrants from Vietnam and Cambodia who scrimp so their daughters can get top-notch educations, Kelly said.

"Everything we have here is a gift," Kelly said of Masterman. "It's an amenity that some other students don't get."

Meeting the president is a pretty big gift, too, Kelly said, and she's ready.

Her speech is written, and she's fielded lots of advice from her mother about how to stand, where to put her hands, how to pace herself.

"It's almost unreal," Kelly said. "I feel very lucky to be here."


President Obama's Visit

President Obama will be giving his back-to-school address to the nation from Masterman School, 17th and Spring Garden Streets.

The speech is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. It is an invitation-only event.

Expect street closures and heavy traffic around the school.

According to Masterman officials, there will be no access to Brandywine Street and no stopping on 17th or 16th Streets. All students must be dropped off on or near Spring Garden Street. Students are asked to report by 7:30 a.m., and physical access to the building will be limited.


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

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