In January 1977, the 9-year-old daughter of newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter started classes in a three-story brick school in downtown D.C., improbably nestled between a maze of concrete-and-glass office buildings.
This was no posh private school.
While the children of high-ranking Washington officials customarily attended leafy, cloistered institutions in the District’s toniest enclaves, Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter took a different path: public school.
The Carters’ decision to enroll Amy in the Thaddeus Stevens School — a historic African-American public elementary school whose attendance zone the Executive Mansion just happened to fall in — became the subject of intense media scrutiny.
After all, only one other president — Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 — had ever sent a first child to public school before. (And no president since, including fellow Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has emulated Carter’s decision).
The Carters’ choice of schools turned modest Stevens elementary into one of the most famous schools in America seemingly overnight. But by all accounts, the president and first lady were not interested in making a splash.
“The Carters were just nice everyday kind of people,” recalled Jane Jackson Harley, the longtime school counselor at Stevens, now 79, in an interview with WTOP.
Fourth-grade teacher Verona Meeder recalled an after-school White House visit the day Amy joined her class at Stevens. Just treat her like any other student, the president told her. And if she gives you any trouble, you give me a call.
“To me, it seemed like just another family moved into the area,” Meeder, now 86, told WTOP.
The first day of school for a new student usually brings at least a few jitters. In this case, it also brought a Secret Service detail and a crush of TV and newspaper reporters.
Photographs and video of Amy’s first day of school, just a few days after her father’s inauguration, show a pensive girl in jeans and a stocking cap walking past a rope line of furiously shuttering cameras.
“It was like the red carpet at the Grammys,” recalled Juan Herron, who was then a third-grader at Stevens.
During those first few weeks, reporters covered school field trips and the cafeteria’s lunch menu, and tour buses filled with sightseers crawled past the school aiming to catch a glimpse of the blond, bespectacled 9-year-old at recess.
But things eventually settled down.
“We probably didn’t understand the significance of that being the president’s daughter — even though we knew who she was,” Herron, now 49, recalled.
She was just Amy.
“Amy made it feel normal, because she would do her work and then read her book,” Meeder said. “She always had a book on the corner of her desk. She never asked me what she could do. She just read.”
Other teachers describe her as a quiet, unassuming fourth-grader.
“Amy was very, just, normal,” recalled Rebecca Medrano, who taught Spanish for an after-school program at Stevens. “She was . not somebody who was going to be in your face and talk about being the president’s daughter. It wasn’t that important to her. There were other things she was thinking about — you know, being a kid.”
Amy Carter transferred to a D.C. public middle school — Rose Hardy Middle School — after two years at Stevens. After her father left the White House in 1981, she moved back to Georgia, attended Brown University, got arrested protesting the CIA and, eventually, got an art degree. She married in 1996 and has a teenage son. Famously press shy, she rarely gives interviews and, through a representative for the Carter Center, declined to be interviewed for this article.