Continuing a tradition among Washington's power elite, President-elect Barack Obama and his wife have decided to send their kids to Sidwell Friends School. Michelle Obama confirmed yesterday that Malia and Sasha, the incoming first daughters, will enroll at the pricey private school when the family moves into the White House in January.
Although Mrs. Obama has said that public schools were under consideration and consulted with D.C. school officials, the decision narrowed this week after she and the girls visited Sidwell and the private Georgetown Day School. Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, visited classes and met with students while their mother talked with administration officials and parents. Mrs. Obama also visited both schools last week when she came to Washington with her husband to tour the White House and meet with President and Mrs. Bush.
At Sidwell, the Obama girls will be following in the footsteps of Chelsea Clinton, who attended and graduated from the Quaker school during the eight years her father, Bill Clinton, was president. The last presidential child to attend Washington public schools in modern times was Amy Carter.
"A number of great schools were considered," Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Mrs. Obama's spokeswoman, said in a statement yesterday. "In the end, the Obamas selected the school that was the best fit for what their daughters need right now."
Lelyveld declined to elaborate on the reasons, but it is believed that Sidwell's experience with handling the security and privacy of the children of government leaders played a role. President Richard Nixon's daughter Tricia went to Sidwell. Vice President Al Gore's son, Albert Gore III, graduated from there. Three granddaughters of Vice President-elect Joe Biden currently attend the school: Maisy, 8; Finnegan, 10; and Naomi, 14.
Malia had told her parents she wanted to attend Sidwell because of her friendship with one of the Biden grandchildren, according to sources familiar with the decision.
"I think the school knows how to handle it and the kids know how to handle it," said Dahlia Neiss, whose daughter, August, is a fourth-grader at Sidwell. "Hopefully they're going to be treated as normal as possible."
Neiss added that Obama's election was "a much bigger issue" to her 9-year-old daughter than the prospect that his daughters might become her classmates.
The choice means that the Obama girls will be going to class on two separate campuses in two different cities. Sidwell's lower school, in Bethesda, is where Sasha would attend second grade. Malia is in the fifth grade, part of Sidwell's middle school, located on the same campus as the high school in Northwest Washington, a few miles from the lower school.
Sidwell has between 1,000 and 1,100 students and says 39 percent of them self-identify as students of color. Tuition this year for elementary school is $28,442; for the middle school, $29,442.
It has long been the choice of politically powerful and moneyed families. As Sidwell parents, the Obamas will find not only supporters of his campaign but also of his rival in the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton. Her pollster, Mark Penn, sends his children there, and Lissa Muscatine, a longtime speechwriter, is on the board of trustees.
Malia and Sasha will be transferring from the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which have about 1,700 students.
The public spotlight on the Obamas' school choice rekindled debate over whether a populist president should send his children to elite schools. The District's public schools are headed by an activist chancellor in Michelle Rhee, who is battling the teachers' union and long-entrenched problems to raise standards; she sends her children to public school. She is backed by Mayor Adrian Fenty, who sends his children to private school. Both made it clear, by sending out a press release, that they had talked with the Obamas about their decision.
"Mrs. Obama is the product of public education on the South Side of Chicago and she believes strongly in the importance of good public schools for all kids," Lelyveld said. "The Obama administration intends to work closely with the school systems in the years to come to ensure quality public education is available to all kids."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a vocal advocate of public education, defended the Obamas' choice. "That is for him and his own family," she said. "I don't see any public aspect to this decision of where your children should go to school."
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."
Julie Wolf, mother of a first-grader and a preschooler at Sidwell, said her family was "super excited" about having the Obama children as classmates: "They have seen the girls on television. They haven't seen them at Sidwell, but they've known when they were visiting Sidwell."
Wolf said her son came home from school early this week with reports of Obama sightings on campus, although he himself did not see the family. "I'm sure that it's being discussed by the kids," she said. "But they're all so young in the lower school, I can't even imagine what those conversations consist of. I can't imagine they're very substantive."
Bruce Stewart, head of Sidwell, could not be reached for comment.
Staff writer Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.