Erby Mitchell ’98 had no idea he would meet and greet President Barack Obama’s family when he moved to Washington, D.C., to take a new job in 2007. But last fall after the presidential election, Michele Obama and her daughters, Sasha and Malia, came to visit Sidwell Friends School, where Erby is director of admissions and financial aid. In fact, they visited several times. “It felt like a long courting ritual. I think it was just as important as a Cabinet position to that family,” he says.
Although the Obamas considered other schools, they chose Sidwell. Besides being where the girls felt they would be happiest, Mitchell believes the Quaker school fit with the family’s egalitarian focus.
“What they deserved more than anything was to have space and to give the girls a normal school experience,” he adds. He maintains the school is essentially unchanged, except for the secret service agents, who are quite popular.
Sidwell is one of about 100 Quaker schools nationally. Its philosophy upholds that God is in each person and that the way each person lives their life speaks loudly. Thirteen percent of the students are African-American and 40 percent overall are people of color.
Mitchell says the incredibly dedicated faculty loves teaching in a rigorous academic setting to students he describes as “really interested in the life of the mind.”
The school’s diversity contributes educationally, he says, because when studying issues of social justice or economics, there is typically somebody in the same class that can speak to that issue from experience. “If done correctly, students will leave here challenged in their own conventional thinking,” says Mitchell.
With the average class size at just 14, everyone is expected to contribute to class discussions. Students tend to take ownership of the educational experience. “They don’t swallow it whole, they chew on it,” says Mitchell. In the process, they become critical and independent thinkers.
Mitchell’s own experience was quite different. He grew up in a Brooklyn housing project and graduated from New York City public schools with a myopic focus on basketball. He came to Saint Joseph’s to play hoops. Academics mattered little to him until his junior year, when something started to click. A core group of faculty engaged him and pushed him. He began to pursue his own intellect, got involved with the Preble Street Resource Center homeless shelter, and wrote a long paper about the effect of poverty on cognitive development.
“For the first time, people told me to step my game up,” he says. “I’ll never forget my senior year. It was the most productive academic time.”
But it wasn’t just faculty who were looking out for him. Families of his friends took him in, the bookstore manager gave him a job and even bought his books.
After Mitchell graduated, he worked on campus in Student Life for a couple of years, leaving to become the multicultural admissions recruiter at Bowdoin College. During his time at Bowdoin, he became a voracious reader of history and education. After several great years there, he was ready for another challenge, and his colleagues encouraged him to go to graduate school. They urged him to make it Harvard. He earned his master’s degree in education there in 2006, returning to Bowdoin as an associate dean of admissions.
He and his wife, educator Jennifer Bennett Mitchell ’97, now live in suburban Silver Spring, Md., where his two children attend the public schools. He sometimes misses the pace of Maine and being able to have campfires in his backyard.
By the way, his reaction to the news that President Obama’s daughters would be enrolling at his school? He laughs, recalling the high-profile enrollment process, and says, “I went home and took a good, long nap.”
Note: Erby Mitchell and his family have decided to move back to New England to be closer to their families. He will be Assistant Head of School for Enrollment Management at t the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn.
By Charmaine Daniels