Tom Farquhar, Sidwell’s head of school, spoke in favor of One World last week at a D.C. Public Charter School Board hearing. “These are extraordinary people,” Farquhar said, “and they have demonstrated in their lives prior to this an extraordinary commitment to the children of our community.”
Charters have drawn leaders from high-flying college-prep schools before: A graduate of National Cathedral School started the high-performing D.C. Prep charter network, while a Sidwell alumnus co-founded the SEED School, a charter boarding school.
But it’s unusual for a brand-name private school to publicly endorse a start-up charter and to agree, as Sidwell has, to explore opportunities for a continuing relationship. Should One World win approval next month to open its doors in fall 2014, a public vote of confidence from the school that educates President Obama’s daughters could give it an immediate competitive advantage in a crowded District school marketplace.
“Using an established institution in the city that everybody knows undoubtedly is a pretty effective way to connect with parents,” said Don Soifer, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. “It’s a potential cachet that is definitely of value.”
Some critics say that the proposed charter could draw the most motivated students away from the city’s traditional schools, accelerating a trend that they say is hindering those traditional schools’ efforts to improve.
“I’m concerned about this move toward hypercompetition,” said Daniel del Pielago, an organizer at the community group Empower D.C., which opposes the expansion of charters. “It’s not ‘Let’s make our public school system, our community schools, a lot better.’ It’s ‘I’m going to get my kid into this one really high-performing school.’ ”
One World’s founders seek to have the school along 16th Street in Northwest, about three miles east of Sidwell and in a ward where the only traditional middle school, MacFarland, is slated to close in June because of low enrollment.
The school hopes to enroll 300 diverse students, including those living in poverty and those who could afford to pay full freight at Sidwell but would prefer a public school.
Students would take both Spanish- and Chinese-language classes. They’d have art classes nearly every afternoon for 90 minutes. To graduate from eighth grade, they’d complete a “passion project” — an independent investigation of a topic of their choice — and they’d have opportunities to travel abroad.
“The only difference between low-income kids and Sidwell kids is the exposure — exposure to arts, to music, to active dialogue, to questioning the world,” said Marta del Pilar Lynch, a One World co-founder who graduated from Sidwell in 1991. “That type of child can be cultivated whether you’re on Section 8 housing and getting food stamps or whether your family has $200,000.”