Story of Prominent Private School, Sidwell
By Eve Zibart
Novelist and George Mason University professor Susan Richards Shreve, a parent and alum whose 1979 novel Children of Power is also set at Sidwell Friends, says that Wexler's depiction of the mother-daughter show is spot-on. "These forty-something mothers were pure high school, playing out their own fierce competitions on behalf of their teenagers," Shreve says, though she adds that "the second time [I took part], it was almost fun."
In Wexler's book, it all turns out well in the end, despite the sharp elbows, the jostling, and the celebrity parents. Other Sidwell alums, including Juliet Izon, the TV-friendly face of Life & Style magazine, have fond recollections of the show. Izon says her mother was "very involved" in the performance and that they both loved the experience: "It was the best banquet ever," she adds. (For her part, First Lady Hillary Clinton is said by another parent to have been "a good sport about [being in] it.")
Graduation Day, 1997: The Clintons bid farewell to Sidwell.
Parental Discretion Advised
For the school, having a big-name parent or graduate is the gift that keeps on giving. When Chelsea was a junior, President Clinton auctioned off a round of golf that raised a reported $76,000; a signed copy of his inaugural address went for $30,000; and even nearly a decade after Chelsea had graduated, he offered a lunch with 30 fans for $7,500 a seat. (The Obamas autographed magazines, reportedly something of a disappointment to auction organizers.)
But while the school might leverage parental celebrity for fundraising, it hunkers down mightily when it comes to the students. Behind school doors, fame is almost a four-letter word. Alum and parent Eric Adler, whose SEED Foundation opens public college-prep boarding schools for disadvantaged students, recalls running into a faculty member while Chelsea Clinton was enrolled and asking what it was like to have her at the school. "He just said, ‘We don't talk about that,'" Adler laughs. And Izon says she knew when Al and Tipper Gore were at the school only when she saw a few extra black suits (i.e., Secret Service) around campus. Today Malia and Sasha aren't pointed out in the hallways, even with their security details. The fact that there have been no Obama-related gotcha postings in this Twitter-happy era is remarkable, especially since the children of some of Washington's media elite attend alongside the Obamas.
Among prominent couples who have reportedly placed children at Sidwell are Clinton pollster Mark Penn and Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson; PBS's Judy Woodruff and Al Hunt of Bloomberg News; Hillary Clinton speechwriter Lissa Muscatine and former Washington Post reporter Bradley Graham (the couple now own Politics and Prose bookstore); BET founder Robert Johnson and ex-wife Washington sports maven Sheila Johnson; political commentator Howard Fineman and FCC senior counsel Amy Nathan, whose daughter is Huffington Post blogger Meredith Fineman; Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald and ex-husband journalist Matthew Cooper; and Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward and writer Elsa Walsh (in 2004, when Woodward took part in Celebrity Jeopardy!, he named Sidwell as his designated charity).
That the school can keep a lid on gossip about its most famous students is testimony to its long-held tradition of discretion. The Obamas and Bidens undoubtedly knew that when the Clintons asked journalists to respect their daughter's privacy, the Sidwell community closed ranks around her. But it's not only student privacy that encourages enrollment in the school. Susan Jones, of Dunbar Educational Consultants, speaks of "Sidwell's seductive trifecta"—along with its Quaker values and excellent academics, the school has safe and accessible campus locations in Northwest DC and Bethesda. Although Washington has a number of highly regarded private schools, many of them are either Catholic (Gonzaga), single-sex (Holton-Arms, St. Albans, National Cathedral School), located farther from the city (Bullis), or, like the Heights School in Potomac, all three. Madeira girls' and Georgetown Prep boys' schools are primarily boarding schools. The Obamas reportedly considered the increasingly diverse Maret and Georgetown Day School, which was in fact the first integrated school—public or private—in the city, before settling on Sidwell. (Of the school-age children in the White House, Amy Carter was the last to attend public school, long before 9-11 security fears or the current 24-hour media scrutiny.)
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GETTY IMAGES (nixons; clintons)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.