I grew up in DC and went to Sidwell Friends. So did Baratunde Thurston AKA Jack Turner. So I wasn’t really surprised to hear that the Obama girls are going to Sidwell. I was more surprised at the very public drama of the selection process which I assume had some kind of political, inside-DC purpose. The Obamas have made careful study of the Clinton playbook. It makes sense that they would choose a school with successful experience educating and protecting a presidential daughter.

There was no way that the Obama girls were going to a public school. Believe me people, that was never under any kind of serious consideration. There are a few good public schools in DC although the system in general (and I say this as the daughter of a now-retired DC public school administrator) is one of the most sick and dysfunctional in the United States. Even the very best public schools in DC however would struggle to try and protect the Obama girls from the intense & international media interest in their every move. And securing a DC public school from the Secret Service perspective, especially given the continued threats to Barack Obama’s life from racist elements, would likely prove very challenging.

Sidwell is not just a school for the rich, powerful and well-connected. Money alone doesn’t really buy your way into Sidwell. Especially the older you are in attempting to enter, the smarter you have to be for acceptance. I had to take an SAT like standardized test in order to apply. Sidwell is for kids whose parents want them to be somebody and do something when they grow up and not just rely on their money, good looks or connections to get ahead. Sidwell is ruthlessly competitive and academically rigorous — of my class, a third applied to Yale and 10% (including me) were accepted. Smarts are valued as much or more than who your parents are or how much money you have.

Sidwell also offers, due to its Quaker heritage, a lot of moral and ethical training which I think is quite unique & valuable in a town where moral compromise is too often the standard. Also, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund sent her kids there and has been a strong advocate of the education at Sidwell (note I was at school and knew 2 of the Edelman boys who were there). If Marian Wright Edelman recommended a school to you, how seriously would you take that recommendation? It’s said that she was persuasive in encouraging the Clintons to send Chelsea there. (Disclosure: the younger brother of one of my friends from school was in the same class as Chelsea Clinton.)

This is the first in a series of posts that Baratunde and I will be publishing about our experiences as African-Americans attending Sidwell. We actually didn’t cross each other’s paths until long after we both graduated from our Ivy League schools (Jack went to Harvard) — I was a few years ahead of him. At the time I went to Sidwell, it was the most diverse private school although I find this may no longer be the case. Still there weren’t tons and tons of black students. The kids in my grade numbered less than 100 so you can imagine how many black kids there were.

The racial situation at Sidwell is best described as complex but not unhealthy. Of special note to African-Americans might be the relationship between wealthy black students and students of color who were on scholarship and who indeed comprised the bulk of the scholarship students. When I was at Sidwell, only 20% of the students there were receiving financial aid. I was a scholarship kid as was Baratunde entering in the 7th grade and had friends of many races and different socio-economic backgrounds. A generation separates Baratunde & me from the Obama girls and their experience to come. Yet DC changes slowly indeed. While the ratio of wealthy black students to middle & working class ones has probably begun to change, the dynamics are probably similar in nature.

Black Sidwell graduates are a rare species. Baratunde and I believe we may have some unique behind-the-scenes insights to share and would like to offer what hopefully might be some valuable advice for the Obama parents and children on being black at Sidwell Friends.

More to come. Stay tuned.

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