President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited a southwest Miami-Dade high school Friday to discuss the importance of education, as demonstrators gathered to plead for help for Venezuela.
The president came to Coral Reef Senior High School with a message aimed straight at the students: the nation will invest in their futures if they do their part.
"We want every young person to have the kinds of teachers, and the kind of classes, and the kind of learning experiences, that are available to you here at Coral Reef,” Obama said to loud applause. “Because that's the best investment we can make in America's future."
The president announced a new initiative to help students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form. The application is required for students to receive federal student aid, like Pell Grants, or federal student loans. States, colleges and universities also award student financial aid based on the form.
Yet more than 1 million high school seniors annually do not file a FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education says.
As part of an effort to broaden access to education, Obama announced that, starting in the fall, the Department of Education will begin working with states to identify students who have not completed the form. States can then use that information to help schools and school districts work with these students on filling out the form.
Obama urged Coral Reef students to fill out the FAFSA, even if they do not think they'll qualify for financial aid.
"It takes about half an hour to fill out and it could change the rest of your life," he said.
The student who introduced Obama, Anyssa Chebbi, is a case in point.
"Thanks to FAFSA, attending college has gone from a distant dream to being a very real, affordable possibility,” she said.
The White House notes that Obama's proposal for the budget year that starts in the fall asks Congress for more than $750 million for various education programs. His request includes $300 million for a new competition to encourage states and school districts close achievement and opportunity gaps, and $200 million to help teachers introduce digital technologies in their classrooms and lessons.
Obama also wants $100 million for a fund to support strategies that help make college more affordable.
Since 2009, the administration has simplified online filing of the FAFSA form by reducing the number of questions, using intuitive software that lets students and parents skip irrelevant questions and allowing them to download financial information straight into the form from the IRS website.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said the changes have cut the filing time to less than 30 minutes, down from more than an hour for the 2009-2010 school year.
Obama says education can help the country succeed economically because it will provide students with the skills they need to compete in the 21st century. Education, and expanding access to it, is part of Obama's agenda to provide "opportunity for all," along with creating jobs, training people to fill those jobs and raising the minimum wage.
Michelle Obama joined her husband on the visit to Coral Reef Senior High. The president and first lady have been making an effort to encourage young people, particularly minorities, to pursue a college education, and they have been using their personal stories of how education helped them get where they are today. Both are Ivy League-educated.
"I'm actually pretty excited to see Obama," student Courtney Green said Friday morning. "It's not often that you have a chance to see such an authority figure, it's not often that he comes to your school."
President Obama said that he was optimistic about the future after meeting Coral Reef's students.
"Michelle and I walked out of that classroom, we said you know what, we’re going to be in good hands, we’re going to do OK, because these young people are coming and nobody's gonna stop 'em! Thank you everybody, God bless you,” he concluded.
Obama did not discuss the controversial Common Core curriculum movement. He also did not speak about the turmoil in Ukraine or Venezuela.
Protesters were already at the school early Friday morning to call attention to immigration reform and the situation in Venezuela. Many held signs and waved Venezuelan flags while chanting "Help Venezuela" and "SOS Venezuela."
"President Obama can see that we're here, that we want him to notice us, that we want a response from him that he's either going to support Venezuela or he's not going to support Venezuela," said Juan Calderon, one of the two dozen or so protesters who gathered at the school Friday morning.
"We're talking about people from all over the country, from all over the world that come here to this country to fulfill the American dream but they can't," immigration reform protester Jose Machado said.
Alexandra Gama said she wasn't looking for much from Obama.
"We need your support, even a tweet, even any kind of attention. I know he has so much attention to Russia right now, but Venezuela needs him,” she said.
After the event, the Obamas headed to the Florida Keys for a weekend getaway with their daughters in Key Largo.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said "there's always a chance" President Obama could cut a trip short and return to Washington, but this weekend's vacation appeared solid – even as Ukraine remained in crisis, nearly a week after the Russian military's incursion into Crimea.
"The fact of the matter is what the president is doing this weekend in Florida is essentially what the president would be doing if he stayed back at the White House," Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama. The president, he said, was looking forward to "getting a little bit of downtime in the warm weather with his wife and daughters."
Every president gets criticized for the amount of time he spends away from the White House, and Obama is no different.
Paul C. Light, who teaches public service at New York University, said Obama would have been wise to remain in Washington. Being in Florida with a still-fluid situation in Ukraine "makes the president look less interested in the issue than he clearly is," Light said. "It's just very bad optics."
But the White House made clear that Obama is staying on top of developments in Ukraine, noting that the president called German Chancellor Angela Merkel after arriving in Key Largo. Merkel has been cautious about imposing sanctions on Russia.
Obama checked his family into the Ocean Reef Club, a private, by-invitation-only membership club that is more of a gated, self-contained community sprawled across 2,500 acres on the northern edge of Key Largo.
For avid golfers like Obama, the property boasts two championship 18-hole golf courses. The club also has a swimming lagoon, tennis courts, a spa and fitness center, a private airport and more than a dozen restaurants among its varied offerings.