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By Eve Zibart | April 30, 2012 | Lifestyle
Seal of approval: The Nixons sent daughters Tricia and Julie to Sidwell.
The Obamas at Sidwell: Sasha peers out the window of a Secret Service vehicle after dropping off Malia, in 2009.
Michelle Obama walks Sasha into her first day, along with principal Richard Lodish.
The security detail rolling into Sidwell.
Secret Service members keep watch while the Obamas attend a parent-teacher meeting.
With Malia, attending one of Sasha's school functions last year.
For more than a century, Sidwell Friends School has nurtured the offspring of Washington politicians, philanthropists, ambassadors, and prominent journalists. As to why the Quaker institution has had such a strong pull for the local power crowd, those who know it best—alums, parents, educators—usually cite the school's high academic standards and the diversity of the student body. But also, perhaps most intriguingly, they talk about the power of silence.
As in, no "O" word.
No one within the Sidwell community talks about President Obama's daughters being students at the school (much less about his coaching Sasha's basketball team). Such pedestrian gossip would, as several people put it, "be un-Quakerly."
In 2008, when the White House announced that Malia and Sasha would be enrolling at Sidwell (joining three of Vice President Biden's grandchildren), The New York Times called it the Harvard of Washington's private schools. Forbes referred to Sidwell as "the latest distinguished darling for political parents."
But long before the Obama girls, or even Chelsea Clinton and Albert Gore III, Sidwell boasted first-family headliners such as Julie and Tricia Nixon; Archie Roosevelt, son of Teddy Roosevelt; William Henry Harrison, descendant of two presidents; and Herbert Hoover's son Allan. (Even Nancy Reagan attended lower school there.)
And while JFK's children were schooled at the White House, their older cousins attended the school. Catherine O'Neill Grace, a Sidwell student at the time, recalls how on the day of Kennedy's assassination, Ethel Kennedy came to get her sons Robert Jr. and Joe out of assembly, and how the middle school principal asked parents in the carpool pickup line to turn off their radios until the Kennedy boys could hear the news from a family member.
Name-dropping is hard to avoid at this school, since so many parents are A-listers; in short, everybody is somebody at Sidwell. But regardless of prominence, globe-hopping schedules, or security details, all Sidwell parents are expected to take an active role in their children's school experience. The Obamas may be the most recognizable faces in the bleachers, but they are just part of Washington's most plugged-in PTA.
Natalie Wexler, an author whose daughter graduated from Sidwell in 2009, wrote a novel called The Mother Daughter Show, published last year, that skewered some of the parental clique-chic jostling. The book revolves around a long-time Sidwell tradition, now ended, in which all the mothers of senior girls wrote and performed a musical show about their daughters' experiences. Like one of her characters, Wexler was first tasked with writing the show; although most her script survived, many of her songs were cut (she "recycled" a few of them for the book). In Wexler's novel, there is a presidential daughter named Marina Miyama. Her father is the first Asian-American president, liberal and glamorous. When one mother writes a song about Miyama to the tune of "Maria" from West Side Story, she is slammed by more PC parents. "While some mothers had good experiences working on the show, I know that over the years there have been many who did not," says Wexler (who also says she was assured by the school that it had decided to jettison the show before the book came out). "One woman told me she would routinely come home in tears after the planning meetings, and others who were involved in the show decades ago still find their memories of it painful."
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.)
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)