– President Barack Obama headlined a high school pep rally on Friday – not for the big game, but to push education as the best way for individuals, and the nation, to invest in the future.
His visit to Coral Reef High School lasted a little more than 90 minutes. He visited a classroom with first lady Michelle Obama, delivered a 21-minute speech, shook hands, and met privately with VIPs. Then it was off in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, to Key Largo, where the Obamas and their daughters are spending the weekend.
Almost the entire speech was devoted to touting higher education and delivering autobiographical inspiration to the students. He mentioned "reforming our immigration system," but didn't go into any detail.
He didn't touch on another hot topic in South Florida: Venezuela, where hundreds of people have been arrested and injured during anti-government protests in recent weeks and at least 17 have been killed.
More than 100 people from the Venezuelan community, organized via Facebook, gathered across the street from the school in the midday sun to call attention to what's going on in the South American nation.
"We're here because we want human rights, for President Obama to recognize Venezuela is violating the human rights of the students and the people. People are dying and going to jail every day because of [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro," said Gabriela Nyhus of Miami. "We want liberty for Venezuela."
U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, whose district Obama visited and a leading Democratic voice on Venezuela, said it was OK that the president didn't mention the issue. "He was here to talk about education. It wouldn't have been fair to the kids. It wouldn't have been fair to what he was trying to do."
Garcia, who flew to South Florida with Obama on Air Force One, said he raised the issue with the president during the flight. "Let's be clear: This president is on it."
Obama exhorted the mostly student audience of 1,650 at the "mega magnet" school in the Richmond Heights community in southwest Miami-Dade County – where students get into one of the six academies by lottery – to work even harder. "By working hard every single day, every single night, you are making the best investment there is in your future," he said.
"Keep in mind, Michelle and I, we're only here today because of the kind of education that we got. That was our ticket to success. We grew up a lot like many of you. I was raised by a single mom; she was a teenager when I was born. We moved around a lot, we did not have a lot of money, but the one thing she was determined to see was that my sister and I would get the best education possible," Obama said.
Michelle Obama watched her husband's speech, but didn't speak. She joined the president for a stop at a classroom where about 20 students were filling out federal student aid forms. The president talked up the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms during his speech.
The document is needed to get federal grants or loans, plus some other state- and college-based aid. The problem: many don't complete them. Though it seems basic, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, one of the people who watched from the VIP section, said it's an important issue.
Schools need to do a better job encouraging students, Runcie said, and Obama announced Friday efforts aimed at making it easier for schools check on students and encourage them to complete the form. Runcie said that could broaden the horizons of students who don't think they'll go to college, and get them thinking about the possibility.
The appearance got rave reviews from the students. When Obama entered the gymnasium, he was greeted by a roar of applause and hundreds of arms shot up – holding smart phones to shoot pictures and videos. As the president concluded, the gym erupted with shouts of "Obama! Obama! Obama!" and many students turned around to pose for selfies with the president.
Dovlyn Leger, 19, a senior from Homestead, said hearing the president and shaking his hand is "a once in a life time opportunity. You feel more motivated to do better things in life." David Bargamento, 18, also a senior from Homestead, said he wants people to know "how powerful his presence was."
The president gave shout-outs to a handful of local elected officials and school leaders, and mentioned former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was near the front of the VIP section with is wife, Carole Rome.
Crist, a former Republican now running for the Democratic nomination for his old job was a frequent campaigner for the president in 2012. He vanished after the event; Andrew Weinstein, a Coral Springs lawyer and Florida Democratic Party finance chairman said he went to meet with the president.
The Obamas and their daughters Malia and Sasha are spending the weekend at the Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo, where the president can indulge one of his favorite pastimes on the two championship golf courses.
En route to Florida, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest defended Obama's decision to spend a vacation weekend in the Sunshine State despite the continuing crisis in Ukraine. He said the president can monitor and act on the situation regardless of location.
"The fact of the matter is what the president is doing this weekend in Florida is essentially what the president will be doing if he stayed back at the White House. It's just that the weather will be a little warmer," Earnest said. "What he is looking forward to doing is getting a little bit of downtime in the warm weather with his wife and daughters."
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