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Kansas Residents To First Lady: Stay Out


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to continue talking about education. In a few minutes, we will hear about a new push for high quality preschool, and we'll find out what that looks like in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But first we go to high school and a showdown in Topeka, Kansas.

First lady Michelle Obama is expected to deliver the commencement address for the Topeka Unified School District next month. The ceremony will fall on May 17, which is also the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court that desegregated American public schools - Brown v. Board of Education. It turns out that at least some of the soon-to-be graduates, or at least their families, are not happy with all the hoopla the visit will entail.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called Celia Llopis-Jepsen, education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. Also joining us is Corey Dade, contributing editor for TheRoot.com. Welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.

COREY DADE: Hi, Michel.


MARTIN: So Celia, start us off here. The opposition started the day that Michelle Obama was announced as a speaker. And I understand that you spoke to one high school senior who actually started an online petition. What are people objecting to?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Yeah, that's correct. So the announcement was last Thursday in the morning, and the initial reaction at the assemblies - from what I'm told from the students who were there - was excitement - a lot of excitement. That was followed by concern about the logistics when they were told that there would be a limited number of tickets.

Normally, in Topeka, the graduations are at the Expo Center here, which has plenty of room because the high schools normally have separate graduations. So people can bring as many people as they would like. In order for everyone to hear the first lady speak, they're going to have a combined graduation for the Topeka high schools, and that means ticketing the event, as well. So the initial number was potentially four tickets per student. Now they're looking at six tickets per student. But that's been one of the main concerns that people have been naming.

MARTIN: So the main concern is that normally kids can bring people - families can bring as many people as they like because they're separate. And now if it's a ticketed event, they won't be able to - they might have to limit the number of people.

Is that the main reason or is there something else? I mean, I think I - is there any subtext to this that for - perhaps people are worried the speech will be political and overshadow their day? I mean, do you think another first lady would have garnered the same reaction?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Well, I think there are few things. First of all, in terms of the logistics, there were other issues, as well. Students were worried. Does this mean we don't get to walk the stage? Does this mean that our valedictorian won't speak? Does this mean we won't have the same music performances we normally have, etc.? You know, and also family members have already made plans to come in from out of state to attend. You know, they felt that they didn't want to uninvite family members who planned to attend.

But then, in terms of the subtext, you know, I can only say what people I've been interviewing have been telling me. I've talked to, you know, students, parents, teachers, etc., and not just those who have reached out to me or come to the school board upset, but also just wandering a couple of the high school campuses, finding students, you know, randomly to talk to.

And what I can say that they're telling me is that they're concerned about the logistics. And I've heard, you know, one parent - maybe a couple parents say, is this going to turn the graduation into a political stunt? But actually, the students have been telling me they're really excited about the idea of hearing the first lady speak. They're concerned about the logistics.

MARTIN: Corey, one of the reasons we wanted to call you is for kind of a national picture here. You know, Michelle Obama is not the first lady to spark kind of a controversy.

I'm remembering that 25 years ago, first lady Barbara Bush was invited to deliver the commencement address at Wellesley College. And the students protested because they felt that her life and career did not exemplify the kind of achievement in her own right that they had been trained to perform. In fact, they said her achievement came mainly through the achievements of her husband. She did wind up going to the commencement and she actually brought Raisa Gorbachev with her and did deliver the speech that day.

So tell me what do you think, I mean, about this? What do you make of it?

DADE: Well, I think the issue with Barbara Bush was more ideological. It's sort of - it's whether or not Barbara Bush sort of exemplified the values that the university was actually trying to instill in its graduates there, and her being a college drop-out didn't necessarily measure up, according to the students here. Here in Topeka, we're not necessarily seeing a strong ideological bit among the people opposing it.

You know, I think part of it is a couple things. You know, Topeka is now sort of doing - experiencing what many other high schools experience through budget cuts and other means - a lot of high schools and school districts now having joint graduation ceremonies for multiple high schools. Parents and families beg, borrow and steal for those - for those tickets. It is a normal sort of occurrence outside of Topeka.

I think here, what's more interesting is that, you know, any 17-year-old, 18-year-old, they're going to sort of express a point of view that's unique to them and their world. They want it to be exactly how they're used to it being at their school. I think that, you know, at the end of the day - you know, when I think back on my graduation - when most people think back on their graduations, they don't think about the logistics of tickets. They think about - number one, I graduated. I got out of there. And number two, who my speaker was.

And the fact that it's happening on the anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Ed., I think that it ties impressively to the moment, especially the challenges that African-Americans and other students of color are dealing with in those Topeka schools, as far as graduation rates.

MARTIN: But you feel it's misplaced, Corey? I mean, you feel that - what - that the kids are, like, looking - not looking at the big picture here?

DADE: Well, I think - I don't think it's misplaced so much as, you know, I can't rely on a 17-year-old to be global in their thinking. That's not what they do. They are - they're about their community that's right in front of them and validating themselves against their peers. And it's all about that graduation and how they want it. It's for adults and educators to give them the bigger picture here.

MARTIN: Celia, what do you think about this? I'm asking you sort of for an opinion here. Do you feel that - is there is any push back to the pushback? I mean, do other people feel that - they were excited about the first lady coming, but do they - are there any people who are kind of sorry that the event is then being kind of viewed negatively now? What are the conversations that have ensued in the coming - in the days following the initial announcement?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Well, you know, I haven't been hearing from many people myself who feel that way. But certainly we've had hundreds of comments on our website and via Facebook, and we've had many letters to the editor. And there are people who are concerned that this is taking - this is drawing attention from the significance of the - either of the graduation or of the anniversary of the 60th and the excitement of being able to have the first lady speak at that event. They feel that this has been - you know, there's a lot of negative talk about something that should be a moment to celebrate as a community. But this...

MARTIN: Is there a compromise here? Is there any compromise being discussed here?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Yeah. Actually, I'm glad you asked that question. So what the district is working on now is having separate ceremonies on Friday night for each of the high schools where they could do student recognition.

You know, the details are still being determined. But what it's sounding like is, you know, you would have all the things you would normally expect - the valedictorian speech, the performances you might expect - and bring as many friends and family as you want. Celebrate. And then, also Saturday, you know, have the combined ceremony with Michelle Obama. They're still working out the details of that. I'm have, you know - I am waiting to see how that will affect what people think.

MARTIN: But before I let you go out, Celia, can I - can we clarify this? Did they - I think it might surprise some to know that sometimes the White House invites themselves to these things. I mean, that they kind of suggest that it might be nice if they were invited.

Do we know whether it's, in fact, the school district invited the first lady, or did the...


MARTIN: ...White House kind of gently suggest that maybe they would like to come?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: No. Absolutely. The local school district reached out to the White House around in December and asked whether the president or the first lady might be able to attend.

MARTIN: Celia Llopis is - Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. She joined us from WIBW in Topeka. Corey Dade from TheRoot.com joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DADE: Thanks, Michel.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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