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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 13.0° F  Fair
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An inside look at the Obama visit to Wright Middle School in Madison
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President Obama discusses 'The Race to the Top' in a speech at Wright Middle School in Madison.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

Deion Ford's aunt shaved "44 OBAMA" into his close-cropped hair this week. The new look marked a special occasion for the 8th grader at Wright Middle School. Ford was one of about 40 students who met with President Barack Obama today in advance of his education talk at the school.

"It's good for students here to see him here at school instead of just on TV," said Ford, who shook the president's hand. The president talked with the group about when he was a kid, and encouraged them to make the most of their education.

Ford said meeting the president will probably foster better study habits and prompt him to do his best in school.

Obama's address Wednesday on strengthening the country's education system stressed student responsibility for learning. The president traveled here with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the one-year anniversary of his election to office to speak before 900 people squeezed into the gym at the middle school on Fish Hatchery Road.

In his meeting with students beforehand at the library, Obama said success ultimately rests with students, but that the government is prepared to spend "a lot of money to try to improve school buildings and put computers in and make sure that your teachers are well trained and that they are getting the support they need."

Obama was talking about the $4 billion in Race to the Top grants the administration will award schools. States will be able to apply for the billions ("with a B," said Obama) to bolster their schools in months to come. But money will be tied to a variety of metrics and it will be contingent upon success.

It was an historic day. The last time a sitting president visited Madison was when Harry Truman spoke here in 1950 -- meant street closings around the school at 10 a.m. and a wall of massive, brown bomb-deterring security trucks surrounding the locked-down school.

Groups of protestors with causes from ending the war to opposing abortion to universal health care gathered on Wingra Drive at Fish Hatchery Road, shouting at each other across the blocked street entrance.

After emptying their pockets, having possessions sniffed by a trained dog, and being screened by a metal scanner, students and invited guests, including the press, waited two-plus hours for the president to arrive. One group passed the time by playing a math game, 24, with 8th grade math teacher Barbie Pietz. Others simply waited patiently for the president, who arrived before a hushed crowd at 1:25 p.m.

"This is a culminating event for them," Wright librarian Amy Owens said of the visit. "They followed the election last year and have been following his career. This will be something they'll never forget. Think about what you remember from middle school."

State Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs commented to another officer how the kids were "really keeping it together," during the long wait. "These are the most well behaved young people I've seen in a long time."

A news crew from Japan's public television station, NHK, joined 175 other media -- local and national -- in a gated area in the back of the gym.

Many students wore white T-shirts printed with Obama's name, image and the slogan "Doing tings the Wright way" in royal purple. The shirts were made by Richard Henderson, a former teacher's aide at Wright who now owns and operates Richard's Shirt Factory in the Genesis Enterprise Center.

"This was beautiful," Henderson said of Obama's talk. "They need to start focusing on education and stop taking away the funding."

Alicia Michaels, a 13-year-old 7th grader at Wright, wore her Obama shirt, saying it's "cool to have the first black president at school."

Tonya Ellis, whose son Isaiah attends 6th grade at Wright, called attending the event a "once in a lifetime opportunity." She was among some 50 parents of Wright students invited as part of a parent lottery. All of the school's 250 student and staff were at the event. "This is significant in so many ways."

While Obama's visit here was inspirational, UW-Madison educational policy doctoral student Beth Sandel said she's concerned about Obama's Race to the Top initiative because it "focuses on data."

Margaret McMurray, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction consultant for charter schools, sees the initiative as on target.

"Student achievement," she said, "must be the basis of everything we do in education."

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