Thursday, November 12, 2009

Elite School Sees Dark Side of Limelight

"Demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas protest across the street from Sidwell Friends; students hold a counter-protest.(Carol Guzy/the Washington Post)"

Its parent-teacher conferences made the evening news. So did cases of swine flu. And Sidwell Friends School has recently been the target of a few small protests that seem aimed at prominent parents, not students.

The school, long a favorite of Washington's leading families, is no stranger to presidential children. But in the months since Barack and Michelle Obama decided to send their daughters there, Sidwell has been pulled into the spotlight of a distinctly 21st-century culture -- one that is increasingly celebrity-obsessed and often shockingly unmannered.

Educators and others at Sidwell have portrayed this as what their most famous parent might call a "teachable moment."

When five anti-Obama, anti-gay protesters appeared in front of the school's Wisconsin Avenue NW entrance Monday morning, they were met by 150 Sidwell students waving signs ranging from "There is that of God in Everyone" to "I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It."

"I guess they think they can influence what we think because we're young and vulnerable," said Daniel Edminster, a Sidwell junior. "They can't."

The school, founded in 1883, taught children of three White House occupants before the Obamas: Theodore Roosevelt, Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton. Vice President Biden's grandchildren go there, as did Al Gore's son while Gore was vice president.

But in the 1990s, when Chelsea Clinton attended, Twitter and Facebook didn't exist to amplify and extend conversations. (There have been more than 175 tweets about the protests in front of Sidwell since Monday.) Nor did the Internet function as a gathering place for the political fringe to the extent that it does today.

Administrators at Sidwell said they remembered two protests in the 4 1/2 years that Chelsea Clinton attended the school. This year, there have been two protests since mid-September.

The news media and the blogosphere have put the school under a microscope, too. GQ recently named the school's admissions director the 50th most powerful person in Washington. The Obama girls' first day of school merited a two-page spread in People. Its racial dynamics were analyzed on NPR. Its lunch menu is scrutinized by sustainable food advocates and doctors groups.

On the political front, pro-school-voucher activists invoke Sidwell again and again in their arguments for letting families use public money to send their kids to private schools.

Parents, students and educators say that the Quaker school's values of egalitarianism and thoughtfulness haven't changed under the spotlight but that expressions of students' views have become more visible to the public.

"I don't think anything in the culture has really changed," said Chris Dorval, whose daughter attends Sidwell's high school. But, he said, the attention has "kind of crystallized their culture in a way."

The school's former head said that even negative attention could, in the end, be valuable for the students. "In some ways, these kinds of experiences deeply enrich the education students get," said Bruce Stewart, who spent 11 years as head of Sidwell before he retired at the end of June. "You want to hear those voices, listen to them and make a judgment about it. That's an important thing for kids to learn . . . not acquiescing to it, not being duped by it, but hearing it."

Even at the lower school, where the five protesters chanted slogans that were not lower-school or family-newspaper appropriate at dismissal time Tuesday, parents said that they would try to use the demonstration as a teachable moment.

"My son is in kindergarten, and he won't really understand the content," said Amy Henderson, who was waiting with her preschool-age daughter in the car line. She could have stayed at home with her daughter and had someone else pick up her son, she said. But she said that she wanted to see the protest and talk about it with him. "We have too many same-sex couples as friends for it to be an issue," she said.

Not everyone at the school sees a big difference in public interest in the school between the Clinton and Obama eras.

"It's not really different between the mid-'90s and now," said Ellis Turner, associate head of the school. "This has happened now within a condensed period of time," he said of the protests, which he called "a low blow."

Turner said he didn't know whether protests would become a regular feature of school life. "We'll have to see," he said.

On Monday morning, an orderly counter-protest didn't prevent orderly learning.

"Guys, first-period class is getting ready to start," Turner told the massed students shortly before 8.

All but a few packed away their signs and headed into the school, leaving behind the five protesters on the other side of the street.