Tom Farquhar, the head of school at Sidwell Friends, which presidential daughters Sasha and Malia Obama attend, has announced he has taken a job at a new school in Dubai. This means he will leave Sidwell at the end of the current school year, in June 2014, a full year ahead of when he initially planned to step down. He calls Sidwell an “extraordinary place” and says of the school’s two most famous parents—President and Mrs. Obama—that they, like others, are “supportive and loving parents who are busy with their professional responsibilities, and I love that.” But, he adds, “at some levels they are better than any other parent, choosing when to show up and when not to show up. Quite elegant.”
Farquhar, who became school head in 2010, has accepted the same position at the new Nations Academy in Dubai. The school is coed, pre-K through 12th grade, and has an American curriculum; it does not open for another 20 months, which Farquhar says will give him a full year before the first classes begin. It will open with 1,000 students—the children of “expats,” he says—and eventually enroll 2,500 students.
In July, the quietest days of summer, the Sidwell board sent out a message to parents announcing that Farquhar had resigned, effective June 2015. At the time, Farquhar said he was planning to pursue his passion of becoming an organic vegetable grower. It took a lot of people by surprise, given that he’d been in the job a relatively short time. “While changes in leadership are never easy,” wrote board chair Lissa Muscatine at the time, “we are fortunate that Sidwell Friends finds itself on such solid footing as we enter this period of transition.” With Farquhar’s change in plans, that timetable has been moved up significantly. In a message to parents during the winter break, Muscatine said, “The Board will accelerate the search for his replacement so that a permanent or interim head will be in place for the 2014-15 school year.”
In a phone interview Tuesday morning, we asked Farquhar for his thoughts on his replacement. He said that while the search committee will look at some “unconventional candidates,” the school head job is a “role for someone who has experience in the independent school world. It may be advantageous to have experience with the myriad issues.” He said the ideal candidate does not necessarily need to be from Washington. He also does not know whether there’s a chance of promoting from within. As for the process of selection, “I’ve taken myself out of it, and no one has invited me in, which is exactly as it should be.”
Reflecting on his time with Sidwell, Farquhar said “I was warned this was a pretty tightly wound crowd. But parents everywhere love their children. The faculty is enormously talented. Given what teachers are paid here … our people work so hard and are so dedicated.”
Farquhar said he worries about an “energy crisis” among students. He talked about the “part of the ecology that has maxed out students’ time. These kids don’t have time to breathe [because] parents and administrations are charged to maximize their potential. That’s the crisis. It comes home to roost in a place like this with a lot of ambition and capability.”
This post has been edited from a previous version.