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Pasco schools: No issues with Obama letter-writing activity

WESLEY CHAPEL - The letter-to-the-president activity that sparked controversy and a Pasco County School District investigation last week was nothing more than education at its most routine, district officials concluded Monday. "This was people doing their job," Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said. She expressed frustration that the situation "got blown out of proportion" because a father who complained and labeled the activity an "attempt to indoctrinate our children" didn't first contact school officials with his concerns. She said a call to the school or the district might have quickly cleared things up.
The letter-writing activity, which happened in the PLACE after-school program at Seven Oaks Elementary and not a regular classroom, was based on a prewritten lesson about the duties of the presidency. There was nothing inappropriate about it, Fiorentino said. "It's our job to teach civics, good citizenship and government," she said. Fourth-graders in the Seven Oaks PLACE program weren't the only ones involved in the activity. PLACE is a before and after school childcare program offered at most elementary schools in the county. "This went on at every PLACE program," Fiorentino said. "Only one parent complained." PLACE employees aren't teachers, but they do provide children with activities that align with the curriculum for their grade level. The fourth-graders have been learning about the three branches of government. The controversy erupted after one girl asked to write to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney instead of President Barack Obama. A PLACE worker told her the letter had to be to the president. That upset her father, who wrote an email saying that he and his wife "don't appreciate them insisting that our daughter write a letter to someone that we do not support." The girl's parents could not be reached for comment. The father's complaint was picked up nationally by Fox News after Todd Starnes, a Fox News Radio commentator, learned about it and reported it on his website. Fiorentino said originally she thought the father contacted Fox News directly, but she talked with him over the weekend and he said he sent his email to the Republican Party, which then forwarded it to Fox. Starnes has reported at least twice on the incident, with headlines such as "Fourth Graders Ordered to Write Letters to Obama" and "Parents Say School is Turning Kids into Obama Activists." Pasco schools had already come under heat from Republicans after an Obama supporter gave a partisan talk last month to Gulf High students during what school officials thought was going to be a nonpartisan voter-registration effort. Fiorentino, a Republican herself, expressed frustration that party officials didn't contact the district about the Seven Oaks situation before forwarding the father's email to Fox News. "Republicans have been asking for years that U.S. government be taught in schools," she said. "It is being taught and we are now being criticized for it." The letter to the president "wasn't meant to be a partisan letter," Fiorentino said. It was simply a writing activity connected to the government lesson. She acknowledged a classroom teacher might have handled the situation differently and allowed the student to write to Romney. PLACE staff members are being told they can be flexible if a child doesn't want to participate, Fiorentino said. The district on Monday provided the media with copies of the activity, which is titled "Dear Mr. President." The activity includes a "What Does the President Do?" information sheet, the address of the White House and a template for the letter. The template opens with the salutation "Dear President Obama" and begins with a pre-written introduction that explains to the president that the students are in the Pasco County schools PLACE program and have been studying government. That introduction is followed by a dozen blank lines. Students are instructed to "write a question to the president or a suggestion that could help others." Parents who want to find out about upcoming PLACE activities can easily find out, said Mary Grey, director of the district's PLACE program. Each PLACE site keeps a binder that lists activities for the coming weeks and those are available for parents to examine. "We don't hide any of the activities out there," she said. The "Dear Mr. President" activity is nothing new, Grey said. It's been used in the past to write letters to President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, she said.

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