Story of Prominent Private School, Sidwell
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Thomas M. Sidwell (center, in bowler) presides over the courtyard, circa 1910.
Sidwell's stated mission of stimulating creative and independent thinking, as well as "a respect for consensus," decidedly rare in Washington's politically charged atmosphere, gives it a fairly liberal reputation. One parent even pointed out that the school's very prominence might make it uncomfortable for parents who wanted a "less political arena" for their children.
Sidwell alum James Ulwick, a legislative aide to US Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), recalls one-time upper school principal Bryan Garman, at the time a history teacher, encouraging students to protest for issues important to them. "He felt the best thing we could do with our day was set our principles in motion," Ulwick says.
O'Neill Grace describes the great lesson of Sidwell that "not only is it okay to question authority, you're supposed to." The latitude to disagree extends across the philosophical spectrum, and the concept of independent thinking is part of the Quaker tradition. To that end, the school puts aside one period every week for purposeful reflection, a touchstone of Quaker philosophy. During this required time, akin to a church service and known in Quaker circles as a meeting, students are encouraged to reflect on how to live a compassionate, peaceful, and truthful life—to hear, in the Quaker phrase, "that part of God" that is within all. Even the youngest children must sit for at least 20 minutes every week. Almost every Sidwell student or parent mentions the lasting influence of meeting.
One alum who transferred to Sidwell in high school says, "Once a week, I went to [an Episcopal] service where they told you what to think. Once a week at Sidwell, I went to a service where they told you just to think."
One of the themes students are asked to consider repeatedly as they grow up is how to treat each other as equals as well as individuals with different strengths—a paradox that echoes throughout a Sidwell education.
While admission to the school is extremely competitive, Sidwell students are encouraged to embrace a sort of academic humility. No class rankings have been released in years, and the school has never named a valedictorian. Lists were formerly published of which colleges its graduates would be attending (i.e., how many got into Ivy League schools), but that practice has been abolished as well. However, Sidwell's scores on the AP English exams have ranked well internationally, a point of pride since the school reportedly does not offer many official AP classes. "It gets a little weird," says one graduate who went to Kenyon. "When you talk to a college recruiter and they say, ‘You don't have any AP credits,' you're supposed to say, ‘All our classes are AP.'" With such a challenging academic workload, many seniors are accepted into the Ivies or such top schools as the University of Chicago, Duke University, Georgetown University, and Washington University in St. Louis. But Sidwell also has strong connections to several small liberal arts colleges (Middlebury, Kenyon, Trinity, Williams), as well as other Quaker schools, particularly Swarthmore near Philadelphia.
In Wexler's novel, one of the girls is deeply upset when she doesn't get into Dartmouth after her friend had received early acceptance to Yale months earlier. "It does become something of a pressure cooker," says Life & Style's Izon. "There are so many kids who are used to being the best that when they all get in the same environment, it's a little strange. And the parents wanting them to get into the best schools boosts the stress level."
Some alums have expressed concerns about the number of "legacies": students who are either children or siblings of Sidwellians. Many parents, especially alumni, start their children in pre-K and keep them enrolled at the school for 14 years ("lifers," in school parlance). New students may enroll only in pre-K, kindergarten, or third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and ninth grades; otherwise slots open by attrition. The greater number of lifers makes it harder for talented students who may have benefited from different elementary or middle school environments to join the mix.
Although it gives some preference to Quaker applicants, Sidwell has students of all religious backgrounds, and 43 percent of the students are minorities, making it arguably one of the most diverse private schools in the Washington area. "Sidwell doesn't just try to acquire a diverse population; they work the hardest at it," says Dunbar's Jones. "It's part of the mantra."
Quaker principles also influence the school's rigorous commitment to community service. Even kindergarten students perform two service days a year, in addition to such classroom exercises as chopping vegetables for food kitchens or helping to compost trimmings from the vegetables. Middle-schoolers begin with two afternoons a month, and by the time students enter the upper school, they are required to perform 60 hours of service before they graduate. (In a striking bit of frankness, the school's official site says this is a matter of introducing students to the "disadvantaged and vulnerable members of society" they might not otherwise meet.) The practice, it seems, imparts to many grads a permanent sense of civic pride and community stewardship.
Cardin aide Ulwick, who plans to enter public service himself, credits Sidwell "with giving me the ability to see the other side of the argument. In fact, it's a responsibility.... It's about conflict resolution. If you have to resort to fists or violence or stereotypes, you're not doing enough; you're not going deep enough."
SEED founder Adler calls his high school years at Sidwell Friends "the single most formative experience of my life. I knew from the day I left for college that my first career would be as a teacher." He has two children at Sidwell now—"and I'll tell you how strongly we felt about their going there: We applied to exactly one school. We didn't even have a fallback plan."
No doubt Sidwell's emphasis on public service, along with its academic track record and history of discretion, struck a chord with the Obamas when they were choosing where to enroll their daughters. "But it is the power school," one observer shrugged. "What would you expect?"
That the circle of silence is holding has to sit well with the first couple, affirming their choice. As for new students and their parents who may become starstruck with the presidential daughters in their midst? "They get over it," says one junior. "Now, if only everybody else would."
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GETTY IMAGES (nixons; clintons)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.