A Crucial Decision For the Obamas: Public or Private?

By Jay Mathews
Monday, November 10, 2008

Like many parents moving their children to Washington, Barack and Michelle Obama will be told to avoid D.C. public schools. Is that good advice?

This is a tricky subject. School choice is very personal. The president-elect's fifth-grade daughter, Malia, and second-grade daughter, Sasha, have been attending the first-rate, private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. I bet they transfer to Georgetown Day School, a good fit because of its similarity to their current school, its historic role as the city's first racially integrated school and the presence of Obama senior legal adviser Eric H. Holder Jr. on its board of trustees. It would be a sensible decision by two smart, caring people.

But it wouldn't hurt to look around first. Georgetown Day, like other private schools, would charge them nearly $56,000 a year for two kids. Why not see what their tax dollars are paying for? One educational gem happens to be the closest public school to their new home. Strong John Thomson Elementary School is at 1200 L St. NW, three-fifths of a mile from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Go north on 15th, turn right on L and three blocks farther it's on the right.

The four-story brick building is easy to miss on a small lot with no playground. But once you get inside, you remember that although D.C. schools have a low average, some schools shine. Thomson's students and staff had to move to a temporary location for three years so the century-old building could be renovated, but it was worth it. The new floors and freshly painted walls have a soft glow. The classrooms are colorful and spacious. The school has a music room, a computer room, a library, a rooftop playground and a new, full-size gym that would make the basketball-loving president-elect drool.

That's just the surface. Meet the principal, Gladys Camp, and you understand why Thomson parents think the Obamas ought to check it out. Dr. Camp, as everyone calls her, is a legend. In the past two years, she has won awards from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and this newspaper as the best school leader in the city. The White House is actually in the attendance area of the Francis-Stevens Educational Center, but that is a recently merged school with a new principal. Camp has had eight years at Thomson to assemble and train a team of educators who know how to work together. "Dr. Camp is truly educating every child, meeting them where they are and moving them to the next level," said Thomson parent Liz Daley. Camp even teaches a guitar class.

Sixty-nine percent of Thomson's 355 students are from low-income families. Forty percent are Hispanic, 34 percent black, 22 percent Asian American and 5 percent white. That demographic mix often means remedial instruction and little enrichment, but parents say the school offers a feast of music, art and foreign languages as good as what they would find in a private school. Katina Wilson said her 5-year-old "has been inspired by her oral and written Chinese instruction." Charlotte Osborn-Bensaada, mother of a second-grader, said "there is a very strong strategic focus on making sure these kids are not just doing okay, but excelling."

Last school year, Thomson officials were surprised by a decline in proficiency rates on standardized tests. Parents blame an influx of new students. Camp appears to be on a mission to remove the stain. She secured a $100,000 grant from the Fight for Children organization, which praised her reading instruction and teacher training program. She is using the money to make Thomson one of five D.C. schools adopting the Primary Years Program developed by the International Baccalaureate organization.

The last president to send a child to a D.C. public school was Jimmy Carter. He was so hot on the subject that he had a line in his 1976 Democratic convention acceptance speech about the political and economic elite who "when the public schools are inferior or torn by strife" send their children "to exclusive private schools." Amy Carter did fine at Thaddeus Stevens Elementary and Hardy Middle schools, but education experts think it's better to focus on training teachers to raise achievement rather than tweaking famous parents about their school choices.

Even D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, with two children at a D.C public school, says she does not believe "in people sending their kids to either public schools or a particular public school because they want to make a political statement." The D.C. schools have options for the Obamas "that are incredibly compelling," she said, but they should follow their own instincts and send their children to a school "they are fully confident is going to ensure that those kids get a great education."

Thomson is close to capacity, but Camp said she would have room after the holidays for a fifth-grader and a second-grader transferring from the Midwest. Their parents, she said, seem to be the kind of people who would appreciate what her teachers are doing. She agrees that this is a choice the Obamas should make without the kibitzing from outsiders. But if they picked Thomson, Camp said, "we would be elated."


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