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Gainesville native manages Obama girls’ DC school

POSTED: January 17, 2009 11:58 p.m.
For The Times/

Gainesville native Sally Selby, right, poses with several women in her family including her daughter, Kate Selby; her mother, Katherine Williams; her brother's wife, Melly Williams; and her niece, Sarah Williams Koskovich, a librarian with Gainesville City Schools.

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Barack Obama will soon be responsible for the future of this nation, but Gainesville native Sally Selby is responsible for the future of his children.

Selby is a principal at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., where the incoming president’s daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, attend.

Selby attended Enota Elementary School and graduated from Gainesville High School in 1972 as Sally Williams. She oversees the private Quaker school’s middle school, where fifth-grader Malia Obama started on Jan. 5. Her second-grade sister, Sasha Obama, also began at Sidwell’s lower school the first day of the spring semester.

The incoming first children’s school sits on a 14-acre campus about five miles from the White House, Selby said. There she oversees about 43 teachers, 340 students in grades five through eight and the middle school curriculum. The whole campus serves about 1,100 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

At Sidwell, Selby said the Obama kids aren’t treated any differently than other students.

"That’s really important to us, that they have as normal an experience as possible," she said. "They do have Secret Service protection, but we have a security team as well, and they work closely together."

Selby said she left Gainesville to study English education at the University of Georgia. She graduated a Bulldog in 1975 and then earned her masters in alternative education from Indiana University.

In 1980, she married David Selby, who maintains pipe organs. They moved to D.C., where he labors over the multimillion-dollar instruments in the nation’s capital.

Before moving to Washington, Selby taught at a public school in Charlottesville, Va., for four years.

While Selby was dutifully mum on the personality traits of the first kids, she did say she met Michelle Obama as the next first lady toured Sidwell Friends.

Selby said Michelle Obama may have chosen the school because of its history of educating members of the executive family. The Gainesville native started as an English teacher at the Washington school in 1982, and has seen Chelsea Clinton and Al Gore III come of age and graduate from the school.

"We found out in December that they would be attending Sidwell," Selby said of the Obama kids. "I’m really proud that they chose Sidwell Friends. I’m really excited that we have them here and I think that we’ll be able to give them a good education."

With Sidwell’s annual tuition at around $29,000, the Obamas must be banking on it.

Selby said she’s enjoyed the atmosphere of the 126-year-old school that is firmly rooted in Quaker morals of peace and respect for people, diversity and the environment. According to the school’s Web site, the Quaker belief that there is "that of God" in each of us shapes everything the faculty does at Sidwell.

And the middle school where Selby works was one of only 30 buildings nationwide granted a platinum award, the highest award from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, when it was renovated three years ago. She said the school draws much of its energy from solar panels, recycles water on campus through an onsite wetlands and uses many rapidly renewable recyclable materials.

The Obama kids will study math, science, English and social studies like most American kids. But they’ll also have the option to participate in the school’s more than 30-year-old Chinese language program. The girls also will take drawing, art and music classes.

Next year, Malia will be old enough to participate in sports at Sidwell, which include lacrosse, crew, swimming, soccer and ultimate Frisbee.

And when the girls hit high school, they might even be able to write for the school’s newspaper "Horizon," which parents can subscribe to at annual cost of $20.

If the girls turn out to have a sense of humor, they can opt to write for Sidwell Upper School’s humor publication, "The Oat." The current issue boasts a front-page article declaring that the school has once again changed its snow closing policy, but this time it was changed to match the policies of the Pasadena, Calif., school system.

Although Selby has the offspring of the leader of the free world scampering about her school, she is still loyal to her hometown publication.

"I actually subscribe to The Times (by mail)," she said. "Of course, it’s three or four days late, but I still like to keep up with what’s happening in Gainesville. I guess I just still feel a sense of attachment to Gainesville."

Much of Selby’s family still lives in Hall County, including her mother, Katherine Williams, her sister, Anne Chenault, and her brother, Bob Williams. But Selby said she doesn’t get to come home as often as she would like.

"She loves the job. She’s a hard worker. She works all summer to refine the curriculum," Bob Williams said of his sister. "She’s pretty modest, but I think she’s done a real good job. We’re real proud of her."

Selby said she tries to make the trip back home at least twice a year.

And it just so happens she’ll get this issue of The Times laid at her doorstep this morning without the four-day delay.

Like many Washington, D.C., residents, Selby fled the city this weekend before the inauguration madness took hold. She is enjoying time off this week with her family in Gainesville.



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