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Which School Will Pass the Obamas' Test?
Well, money figures in, too: If the Obamas choose any of these three schools, they can expect a stiff price hike. They currently send their girls to the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where tuition goes up by grade -- $18,492 a year for second-graders like Sasha and $20,286 for fifth-graders like Malia. Meanwhile, merely enrolling one's child in pre-kindergarten at Sidwell, long the choice of many of Washington's most elite families, costs $28,442 a year.
The institutions the Obamas are considering are already deluged with more applications for each spot than they can handle -- and some years they are harder to get into than an Ivy League school. It's a safe bet, though, that they'll all be able to make room for two new transfer students from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
All three schools tend to be politically liberal, although Georgetown Day, where students call their teachers by their first names, has traditionally been seen as the most progressive of the three. It was founded in 1945 as the first integrated school in the city -- public or private -- and has retained diversity as its mission. Even the curriculum is wrapped around issues of diversity and justice; middle school students do a whole unit on the Harlem Renaissance. About 37 percent of its population identify as students of color. (Sidwell: 39 percent. Maret: 35.) GDS has more than 1,000 students and two five-acre campuses -- the high school in Tenleytown and the lower and middle schools in Palisades, off MacArthur Boulevard. Tuition ranges this year from $25,685 for the lowest grades to $29,607 for the highest.
Sidwell, founded as a Quaker school, landed both Chelsea Clinton and Al Gore's son, Albert III, and when Chelsea graduated in 1997, the commencement speaker was none other than her dad, the sitting president. The school of more than 1,000 students has developed a strong emphasis on environmental issues -- even having its new middle school recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council. The educational environment at Sidwell can be highly competitive, and admissions officials have told prospective parents not to apply if their children cannot handle a tough academic load. The lower school campus is on five acres in a residential neighborhood in the wealthy Edgemoor neighborhood of Bethesda, while the middle and upper school campus sprawls on 15 acres in Tenleytown, not far from the Washington National Cathedral. Parents of students in fifth grade and up pay tuition of $29,442.
Maret, which was founded as a French primary school for girls in 1911, later became a coed school, and was for many years known for its country club atmosphere and powerful social cliques. That changed decades ago, and it has risen in prestige since Marjo Talbott took over almost 15 years ago as head of the school, toughening the standards and expanding the curriculum. (Talbott is the sister of foreign policy adviser Strobe Talbott, whom the Obamas are reported to admire.) The school's administration building was once a summer house for presidents Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland.
Of the three, Maret is the only one with a single campus -- tucked away on a residential street in Woodley Park on eight acres of fenced land -- meaning the Obama girls could stay on the same campus throughout their education and would not need separate security details. It is the cheapest of the three -- relatively speaking -- with tuition ranging from $24,695 for the youngest students to $28,430 for high school.
According to sources, the Obamas have privately expressed concerns about the smaller size of Maret, which has about 600 students; the girls' current school has more than 1,700. They also want a coed school, which is why they have not considered a well-regarded institution such as the National Cathedral School, the girls' counterpart to St. Albans for boys, the sources said.
"The Obamas' situation is obviously unique, but, as with all parents looking for the best match school for their children, they will be looking for reinforcement of family values and beliefs, information regarding high-quality teachers, low student-to-teacher ratios, an ethos of academic challenge for all students, a partnership with parents and a climate that nurtures and supports achievement," said Elizabeth Downes, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, to which these schools belong.
The District's public school system has long been troubled, although there are some high-performing schools, and city officials say Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee have spoken with the president-elect's family about public school options. The last presidential child to attend a public school was Amy Carter in the 1970s (and she was the first for 71 years). The Clintons were criticized for not choosing a public school, though last year Hillary Clinton said the couple's decision arose at least in part from a desire to protect their daughter from scrutiny: "I was advised, and it was, unfortunately, good advice, that if she were to go to a public school, the press would never leave her alone."
Education experts say Maret, Georgetown Day and Sidwell all provide fine educations, though parents have nevertheless been known to nitpick about which school has a "better" second grade teacher lineup or which better deals with problems at recess. Some especially competitive and single-minded parents believe that the "right" kindergarten can set their child on the path to the Ivy League. They scour school directories to see if they know anybody with enough pull at a school to give them an admissions boost.
And now, of course, school administrators and parents alike long to see their school enroll the Obama girls. The Obamas are doing their own research -- and they are taking notes from the many people they know with moneyed and powerful families at each school. In fact, partisans of each school wrote memos some time ago championing their choice.
A presidential nod for one of these already prestigious schools confers obvious bragging rights. Not only would the winner nab the coolest girls in town, but the new president and first lady would likely participate in the life of that educational community. After all, Michelle Obama is on the board of her daughters' current school. Susan Ford, who attended private Holton-Arms School in the 1970s, had her senior prom at the White House. Bill Clinton donated items for auctions at Sidwell. For a town that measures itself in increments of power, such proximity is priceless.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.