Forbes magazine calls Bethesda “America’s most educated small town.” One in two Bethesdans over age 25 has an advanced degree, the highest percentage in the nation. Having NIH, Lockheed Martin, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in town is a factor. But in an area as smart and wonky as Washington, what gives Bethesda the edge?
Journalist and Harvard graduate Mark Feldstein, who lives in Bethesda, says the good schools draw lots of smart parents. Bethesda’s three public high schools—Bethesda–Chevy Chase, Walt Whitman, and Walter Johnson—have each been named one of America’s best high schools by Newsweek or U.S. News. Walt Whitman, which boasts alumni such as Time’s Mark Halperin and film director Spike Jonze, has an award-winning debate team, a nationally ranked chamber choir, and one of the best athletic programs in the state.
Alexandra Robbins, author of The Overachievers, about eight Whitman students, says extracurricular opportunities are legion: “It’s not unusual for students to get experience working on Capitol Hill, at embassies, at the Supreme Court, or at museums.” Robbins recalls one Whitman parent, whose child was taking 17 Advanced Placement classes, berating the school for not offering an AP gym class.
To get into Bethesda’s private Norwood School, prospective kindergartners take an aptitude test and take part in teacher-observed “play dates.” And there’s no shortage of parents willing to pay up to $27,190 in tuition—school head Dick Ewing says Norwood can have as many as nine applicants per spot.
According to Feldstein, one reason Bethesda schools are so good is that the parents are overachievers themselves: “Academics tend to make good schools because they hector the school board.”
Not surprisingly, Bethesda’s Barnes & Noble is one of the book chain’s top-selling stores. The most popular categories aren’t paperback mysteries or Danielle Steel novels—the store says nonfiction genres such as history, current affairs, and biography fly off the shelves fastest.
“Smart people, amazing restaurants, diverse people, and culture,” Robbins says. “Bethesda has everything but a beach.”