Hundreds arrive in Expocentre awaiting First Lady’s speech

The First Lady spoke to high school students at the Kansas Expocentre Friday evening.

Hundreds of people lines up outside the Expocentre Friday afternoon waiting for the doors to open.

Doors opened at 3 p.m. and people filed inside to get a good seat for the ceremony. Those waiting expressed their excitement for having Mrs. Obama in the capital city of Kansas.

Almost one month ago the Topeka USD 501 School District made announced First Lady Michelle Obama would deliver the May 17, 2014 commencement address to graduating seniors from five Topeka schools.

May 17th marks the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing school segregation. The case originated in Topeka.

Unlike previous years where each school had its own commencement, USD 501 said there would be just one commencement that includes all the graduating seniors form Topeka Public Schools at the Kansas Expocentre, which seats 8,000.

This caused many complaints from students and parents who feared tickets would be limited causing less family and friends to attend. Parents began asking the school district to reconsider plans to have the First Lady speak at the graduation ceremony.

A senior from one of the schools had even launched a petition urging the school district to reconsider its plans. More than 1,200 people who had signed it expressed concern about the limited seating.

It was announced a week later that Michelle Obama was rearranging plans, in the face of the protests that her appearance at a combined graduation ceremony would limit seating.

The new plan worked out by the district, Mrs. Obama would speak on May 16th instead of the 17th at a “senior recognition day” at the Expocentre. The combined ceremony would be scrapped and the five schools would hold separate graduation ceremonies as usual on Saturday.

A spokesperson for the First Lady said that once they learned about the ticketing concerns from some of the students and families, they were eager to find a solution that enabled all of the students to celebrate their special day.

Since Mrs. Obama will no longer speak at a graduation, seating would not need to be limited due to concerns over her security.

The change still caused mixed reactions from parents, students and teachers.

“Everything is back on track and now we don’t have to worry about, what are we going to do about our graduation announcements? Now it’s been fixed,” said Senior Wendy Alegria at Topeka High School upon hearing about the change.

Topeka 501 teacher, Tisharra Hale said this had tarnished Topeka’s reputation and that she was embarrassed to be a Topekan. “We have a very rare opportunity to have the First Lady of the United States of America come into Topeka of all places and people are more concerned about a break with tradition than they are this rare opportunity.”

Seventy-three year old Kathy Sawyer, who testified in the Brown V. Board of Education case as a child will have a front row seat at the event.

Five of her family members will also be able attend. Sawyer’s son told Kansas First News that he has also contacted the White House to see if it might be possible for his mother to meet the First Lady in person at the event.

The invitation came after Kansas First News aired a story in which Nicollette Schleisman talked with Sawyer about her experiences as a child growing up in a segregated elementary school. Sawyer recalled her testimony in the historic Brown versus Board of Education case that effectively ended segregation in schools.



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