Where will the Obamas Send Their Girls?

Where will the Obama girls go to school?

Michelle Obama toured at least two of Washington’s most prestigious private schools last week — Sidwell Friends School and Georgetown Day School — and touched off a frenzy of dreaming, gossiping and well-mannered jockeying among the Washington elite. Maret School, another exclusive academy, is also believed to be on the shortlist for the future first children, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

With annual tuitions that can exceed $28,000, these liberal-leaning schools have long brimmed with the scions of senators, representatives, financiers, diplomats, scholars, lawyers, journalists and even a few American presidents.

Notable parents currently include several Obama advisers. Eric H. Holder Jr., a top contender for attorney general, has children at Georgetown Day. Susan E. Rice, a foreign policy adviser, has a child at Maret. And Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the vice president-elect, has grandchildren at Sidwell.

The school competition has transfixed a city where high-profile personalities and institutions often place a premium on access to political power. But the Obamas’ decision is also being closely watched for what it might reveal about the parental sensibilities of the president-elect and his wife.

Will the Obamas choose the Quaker-run Sidwell, established in 1883 and described by some as the Harvard of the three schools? (Sidwell has already educated children of two sitting presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.)

Will they pick Georgetown Day, which became Washington’s first integrated school in 1945 and is known for its informality (students call teachers by their first names) and its emphasis on diversity and social justice? Or will they select Maret, a smaller, more intimate academy founded in 1911 that would allow the first family to keep both children on one enclosed campus?

The Obamas and their aides declined to discuss the family’s inclinations, and no one knows how their choice may ultimately affect Washington’s social landscape. City officials say the Obamas have not visited any public schools here, and their daughters, who attend private school in Chicago, are not expected to switch course.

But those are only details. All across town, parents are already dreamily envisioning casual chats with the president and first lady at soccer practices and PTA meetings, while little girls are swooning over the prospect of White House sleepovers with the daughters of the nation’s first black president.

“With this particular president, there’s so much excitement,” said Natalie Wexler, a novelist whose daughter caught a glimpse of Mrs. Obama at Sidwell last Monday. “Anything or anyone connected to him is going to be exciting.”

History, of course, is not the only consideration.

Michael Kazin, a historian of American politics at Georgetown University, said some parents and administrators are focused on the prestige the Obamas would bring to any school and the students and families affiliated with it.

“No matter what the ideology of the president who is elected or what his party is, the privileged people in Washington always want to get a little more privileged,” said Mr. Kazin, who has a daughter at Maret.

“It’s clear that many parents who send their kids to these schools would want the Obamas to go there,” he said. “They want their particular niche of the community to be enhanced.”

School administrators, trustees and politically-connected parents bristle at the notion that they have done any hard-core lobbying for the Obama children, though some say they have offered the family some friendly counsel. Indeed, Mrs. Obama has already reached out to several prominent people with first-hand experience with the schools.

She called Senator Hillary Clinton the day after the election to discuss the joys and challenges of raising children in the White House, Clinton aides said.

And Beth Dozoretz, a prominent Democratic donor, said that Mrs. Obama asked her about Sidwell a couple of months ago. She said she encouraged Mrs. Obama to consider the school, but emphasized that the city has several excellent private institutions, including Georgetown Day.

Mrs. Dozoretz also passed along a note from her 10-year-old daughter, Melanne, who was thrilled about the prospect of an Obama presidency and the possibility that the girls might end up at her school. (“I love Sidwell because I learn so much there,” Melanne wrote in the note addressed to Mrs. Obama.)

“Of course, anybody would be happy to have that family in their school,” Mrs. Dozoretz said. “This is the first family. But I really feel they will do what’s right for their family. It’s a very personal decision.”

Aides to Mr. Obama and his wife declined to comment on whether Mr. Biden or any other Obama advisers linked to the three schools were quietly (or loudly) rooting for their favorites.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian who has written about first families, said that public fascination with the school decision-making process bloomed in the 1970s when President Jimmy Carter made a point of sending his daughter, Amy, to a public school in Washington. The Clintons drew enormous attention — and some criticism — when they enrolled Chelsea at Sidwell. (She was in public school before Mr. Clinton became president.)

SIDWELL FRIENDS SCHOOL Well-known parents include the journalist Bob Woodward; Beth Dozoretz, a Democratic fund-raiser; the couple George Stephanopoulos (ABC News) and Alexandra Wentworth (actress); and Mark Penn, a pollster.

MARET SCHOOL Prominent Washingtonians who send their children here include Martha Raddatz of ABC News; Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state; the historian Michael Beschloss; and Bill Kennard, former chairman of the F.C.C.

“Those decisions are now often weighed with the thought of what kind of message they will send or what they will symbolize,” Mr. Anthony said. “But the truth of the matter is that most of the presidents’ families were from the elite ruling class. So their kids tended to go to private schools.”

The Obama girls attend the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a progressive private institution that has about 1,700 students and is larger than any of the schools under consideration here. Annual tuition runs as high as $21,480.

That has not deterred Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his education chancellor, Michelle Rhee, from lobbying for Washington’s public schools. The officials have presented several options to the Obama family, a city spokeswoman said.

“Our goal is to have D.C. public schools be as serious an option as any charter or private schools, not just for the Obamas but for any family making the decision,” Mr. Fenty said last week on MSNBC.

Mr. Fenty, however, sends his children to private school, though not to Sidwell, Georgetown Day or Maret. (Chancellor Rhee’s children attend public school.)

And while the decision between public and private can sometimes be an agonizing one for some black professionals, who worry about isolating their children, it is not known to have been an issue for the Obamas.

Washington is typically a socially segregated city, but the schools the Obamas are considering appeal to the elite across color lines. (Mr. Holder and Ms. Rice, the two Obama advisers, are African-American.)

Sidwell administrators say its student body is 13 percent black. Georgetown Day and Maret officials say their schools are 20 percent African-American. (Officials at the Laboratory Schools in Chicago say the population there is about 10 percent black.)

And for many black parents and students, the buzz has been thrilling. Dylan McAfee, an African-American girl in second grade at Georgetown Day, met Mrs. Obama last Monday and has been star-struck ever since. “I touched her hand and she smelled like cherries,” she said.

Malia and Sasha Obama are the talk of the school and the town, said Dylan’s mother, Anita LaRue-McAfee, who is a lawyer.

It’s the first time, she said, that she has seen Washington’s power people utterly agog over two black schoolgirls.

“Here are two little girls that everyone is fawning over, and they look like my kid,” Ms. LaRue-McAfee said. “That’s why I’m excited.”

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