Business Brains

Chris Whittle reimagines the little brick school house for a global age

Posting in Cities

At the Avenues School in New York City, community literally means the world.

Chris Whittle, CEO of Avenues: The World School (Photo courtesy of Avenues: The World School)

On an early October evening, with the light tip-toeing across the High Line out the window, adult voices hum as wine is being poured.

Between the brushed metal chairs, high ceilings, and a panoramic collection of windows, the Avenues School in Manhattan feels more like a tech incubator than a school -- which is, perhaps, the point.

Like any good startup idea, the Avenues doesn’t just rewrite the book on education, it disrupts it. It does so with its global approach. By graduation, students will attain fluency in a second language. And, when the 20 planned Avenues campuses are completed in cities like São Paulo and Singapore, opportunities to study abroad will abound.

Something about this vision has clearly hit a nerve. In spite of the Avenues’ novelty and price tag, which hangs near $40,000 a year, the school received 2,600 applications for its 700 inaugural seats. This 26.9 percent acceptance rate is comparable to top-tier post-secondary institutions like Boston College, Carnegie-Mellon University, and NYU.

The stunning success of these statistics both proves the viability of the Avenues idea and serves as a comeback for its CEO, Chris Whittle, a bold entrepreneur known for his signature bow tie and Tennessee affability.

With the Avenues, Whittle is parlaying what he’s learned throughout his career – successes, including the turnaround of Esquire magazine in the 1980s, and failures, Whittle Communications in 1994 – toward the project of building a network of global schools. He is also, as usual, kicking sand in the face of the educational status quo.

For Whittle, bucking perceived wisdom is something that arrived early on. “I can remember in my sophomore year,” Whittle says discussing his time at the University of Tennessee over lunch at the SD25 Restaurant & Wine Bar in Manhattan’s Flatiron District on a warm October day, “there was this friend of mine who said that he wanted to run for the president of the student body as an independent, and not as part of the old system.” Rather than back away, Whittle engaged, taking on the roll of campaign manager. With Whittle’s help, Moffitt became the first independent elected at the University. The following year, running on a campaign to improve the University, Whittle inherited the title himself.

That combination of education and pluck is a consistent theme in his life. “There’s a whole new field, as I’m sure you’re aware, called social entrepreneurism,” Whittle said. “I thought of what I was doing in that way all along.” After Esquire, Whittle went on to launch Channel One, a public school television network, and the sometimes-controversial Edison School program (now Edison Learning), a research-based approach to school reform with 391 school partnerships around the world.

The Avenues School can be read as a sequel to these episodes. “I think lives are very iterative,” Whittle said. “Even though you may do different things, they often have common threads and they’re connected to one another and they’re growing on one another. I view this as a culmination of everything I’ve done and everything I’ve learned.”

One theme that connects Whittle’s ventures is his uncanny knack for attracting employees with impressive credentials. During his time as the chairman of Whittle Communications, he was able to hire former White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, former Fortune editor William Rukeyser, and former Yale University president Benno Schmidt (Schmidt now serves as the Chairman of Avenues). The same holds true for the Avenues. “We’re talent scouts,” Whittle said. “In every city we go into we have to build what we call the Yankees of Schools.”

On that point, Whittle delivered. “In our case, central to the image of the school are the people within it,” Whittle said. “The most important thing regarding who’s in the classroom is who is running the school, because good teachers are attracted to schools that have good leadership.”

Today, the leadership roster of the Avenues reads like a Who’s Who of private education, and includes names like Tyler Tingley, the former principal of Philips Exeter Academy; Robert “Skip” Mattoon, former head of The Hotchkiss School; Gardener Dunnan, former headmaster of The Dalton School.

Integral to attracting that talent was an idea that lived up to it. “It sounds like a platitude, but we really do live in a global world,” Whittle said, drawing comparisons between global cities like Shanghai and New York. “Increasingly, all sectors of life have a global reach. Having schools that are designed with that in mind? It really does feel like the time has come.”

Prospective Avenues families tend to agree on the importance of a global education, Whittle said. “If you go and talk to parents in Shanghai they are thinking about the education of their children in many ways very similarly to what people in San Francisco are thinking about. They’re often thinking about heading west to colleges and universities. They are thinking about language acquisition for their children. It’s getting back to what we originally talked about, the idea of children growing up with global awareness, language skills, what we call feet on the ground. We had a feeling that was going to resonate worldwide,” he said.

Whittle’s optimism about the important role of global growth doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Research bears it out. According to a September study published in the McKinsey Quarterly, growth in 440 emerging-market cities – including places like Shanghai, Delhi, and Mexico City – will account for half of expected GDP growth between 2010 and 2025.

In spite of this trend, few in the corporate world are poised to take advantage of the growth of global cities. A poll of 2,962 executives published in that same McKinsey Quarterly study found that 60 percent saw cities as “an irrelevant unit of strategic planning.”

While other business leaders are ignoring this trend, The Avenues is diving in. Already, that idea for a network of independent global schools is beginning to congeal. Whittle spends one week in Beijing each month ironing out details on the campus set to open in 2014. São Paolo and London campuses are planned for 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Bold plans, however, aren’t enough to get a project like the Avenues off the ground, Whittle said. It sometimes requires bringing that idea to life.

“Build it and they will come is something that a lot of enterprises are afraid to do,” Whittle said. Instead, they try a piecemeal approach (starting a school in a church basement and hoping that it will scale in five decades, for example) or get hung up on market research. “They try to take baby steps to something and that process of taking baby steps actually kills the idea itself,” he said.

This cautious approach nearly killed the Avenues. “We had a potential investor who said, ‘Well, before I invest I want to do a marketing study to see if anyone will come,’” Whittle recalls. “They commissioned a very high-end firm and went out and did their study. They came back and they said, only 100 people are going to come. And then they said, ‘We’re not going to invest. You’re going to build it and they will not come.’”

Except, of course, students came. When it opened in September 2012, Avenues enrollment eclipsed the New York City average for a new private school by 15 times. “People can’t react until they actually see it,” Whittle said, explaining the school’s enrollment numbers, “and so you have to build it.”

Avenues: The World School as seen from Tenth Avenue in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Avenues: The World School)

Claire Lambrecht

Contributing Writer

Claire Lambrecht has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and CBS MoneyWatch. Previously, she taught English as a Teach for America Corps Member and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, and the Arthur M. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure