The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This pricey school promised a global education. It’s barely solvent.

The startup Whittle School has few students in D.C. It asked parents to help pay teachers.

A classroom at Whittle School & Studios in Northwest Washington. The private school opened in 2019, just before the pandemic, and faces uncertainty over its future. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Three days before Christmas, the founder of a private school with global ambitions sent a bombshell note to families, faculty and staff of the D.C. campus. Paychecks for employees of Whittle School & Studios were a week late, Chris Whittle disclosed, and the financial situation looked dire. It was unclear whether classes would resume after the winter break.

“It has been 7 years since we began work on the school and this is the most worried I have ever been that we may not be able to continue and to fulfill what we all set out to do,” Whittle wrote to his D.C. community. He appealed to investors, friends and families for emergency help.

The school survived that scare, with parents pitching in to help cover the payroll. It plans to hold its first D.C. graduation this week for 14 students in the Class of 2022 — a milestone for an educational start-up that has struggled to live up to grand promises.

Uncertainty hangs over the Whittle School nearly three years after it opened in Northwest Washington with about 185 students in tandem with a sister campus in China. It now enrolls fewer than 130 in a cavernous building on Connecticut Avenue that was once envisioned as a futuristic campus for more than 2,000 students from prekindergarten through high school, including boarders.

Whittle, an education entrepreneur who critics say delivers more rhetoric than results, had pitched the for-profit venture in 2018 as “the first global school.” Targeting a high-end market, it would operate in multiple cities on multiple continents with a common faculty. The interdisciplinary curriculum would emphasize experiential learning, foreign language skills and “a collective intelligence.” It would charge tuition of more than $40,000 a year.

Private school with global designs to open in D.C. and China

For now, Whittle has a humbler goal: to stay open in Washington, his only active campus in the United States. Tuition discounts are plentiful. He said he is optimistic the school will operate in the fall, but he declined to make a guarantee.

“Do you realize how many times I’ve been asked that question?” he said in a telephone interview this month. “Not just of this fall, but the prior fall and the prior fall. We’ve literally been asked that question for every fall. What everyone wants to hear — they want to hear ’100 percent.' And that is dishonest.”

As evidence of viability, he cited $30 million in loans and investments that have kept the school running in Washington while Whittle seeks to raise a major new round of investments to put it on stable footing. The “bridge financing,” as he calls it, shows the venture is withstanding scrutiny. “People don’t do that casually,” he said. “That’s not something that people just wire.”

Still, some parents have given up.

“We didn’t want our kid to be left with no school at all,” said one who pulled his child out this year because of the school’s financial troubles. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a desire to protect the privacy of his child. But he said he was not unhappy with the education. “Up until the moment we left, I never had a problem with the teachers. I never had any problem with the model or the way my kid was learning. We were planning to stay.”

Graduating seniors, well aware of the upheaval, praise the school’s Chinese language instruction and hands-on approach. “I’ve never felt like my academic experience has suffered,” said Calla O’Neil, 18, who is headed in the fall to Georgetown University.

“We’ve had the opportunity to start a lot of things,” including a debate team and student government, said Charlotte Weir, 18, another senior. “There’s a lot of value in learning those lessons. For me, it definitely helped me get to college.” She plans to attend the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

O’Neil, Weir and classmate Rachael Muresan, a boarder from Tennessee, gave a brief tour of the school one recent morning, showing off the renovated interior of the aluminum-and-glass structure once known as the Intelsat building. Sunlight streamed through the roof. Classrooms rose in a multistory stack around an atrium.

On a lower level, young children in helmets rode tricycles and scooters around an octagonal courtyard. Above them, older students worked in an art studio and other classrooms. A striking gymnasium occupied a higher level, with a blue “W” for Whittle centered on the hardwood floor of a basketball court.

“I was on the team,” O’Neil said. For every basketball game, she said, the stands “were completely filled.”

Her father, Michael O’Neil, is involved in efforts to stabilize the school’s finances. He said he understands why parents are asking hard questions. “These are very personal, very serious things,” he said. “Nothing’s more important or more emotional than trying to figure out what is right for your family and your children.”

When Whittle School opened, it sought to make a splash in a regional market with numerous tuition-charging competitors, from Catholic schools to Sidwell Friends School to Edmund Burke School, just across Connecticut Avenue in the Van Ness neighborhood. Some families were lured to Whittle’s progressive vision of education. They were unfazed by its for-profit structure, as a business incorporated in the Cayman Islands.

Most private schools in the United States operate as nonprofit or religious institutions. But Whittle said his arrangement was simply a way to raise enough money to accomplish the school’s vast goals. He talked of opening 36 campuses in 15 countries within a decade. The debut campus in China, known there as Huitong School, launched in 2019 in the city of Shenzhen.

Midway through the first school year, the deadly coronavirus emerged. Campuses shuttered everywhere, including Whittle’s.

“He opened his doors and got hit by a tsunami,” said Thomas Toch, a research professor at Georgetown’s school of public policy and an expert on the region’s private school market. “The pandemic shut the school down six months after its opening.” Rising tensions between the United States and China also hurt the enterprise, Toch said. “Those things made it really difficult to be successful.”

Whittle said the Shenzhen campus has drawn about 1,000 students, and another will open soon in the Chinese city of Suzhou. But it is unclear how or whether the apparent momentum in China can boost the D.C. campus. Whittle said the school is navigating “a new regulatory environment in China” but declined to elaborate.

The pandemic dealt a formidable blow to his launch plans, he said, derailing the development of a Brooklyn campus, delaying other expansions and leading investors to abruptly withhold $60 million that had been committed to the enterprise. He said an almost-done deal for another $40 million also dissolved in early 2020. The net result: $100 million had suddenly vanished from the school’s grasp. That was more than a third of the total investment ($270 million) Whittle had been counting on at the time.

Marketing plans were hobbled as the school, like others, was forced to operate remotely for months. “I’ve been through my ups and downs in the past 50 years, but nothing compared with this,” he said.

The master salesman of for-profit education

Whittle, 74, is controversial in the education world. In 1989 he launched Channel One, a news program for schools that critics said exposed students to too much commercial advertising. In the early 1990s, he co-founded Edison Schools, a for-profit venture that sought to improve public schools through better management. Edison’s record, financially and educationally, was mixed. But it provided significant early support to the charter school movement, including Friendship Public Charter Schools in the District.

In 2012, Whittle led the opening of Avenues: The World School in New York, another private school venture. He left three years later, for reasons he declined to explain, but Avenues continues to operate in Manhattan and has programs in Sao Paulo in Brazil and in Shenzhen.

For his latest big idea, Whittle assembled a high-powered team of educators and advisers. Among them were Nicholas Dirks, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, and Jim Hawkins, former headmaster of the venerable Harrow School in England.

“Chris had a really compelling vision for not only a great school, but a great network of schools,” said Tom Vander Ark, a prominent education consultant and former school superintendent, who until 2019 chaired an educational advisory board for Whittle. “Like everything Whittle does, it was grand and initially well-resourced. I think in the end, he ran out of money for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the pandemic.”

Some of the big names, including Dirks and Hawkins, have left the company’s top level. There has been churn, too, at the D.C. campus. Manuel J. Rivera, who had been global head of faculty recruitment, last year became head of the campus.

“Yeah, it’s been challenging,” Rivera said in an interview. But the campus continues to operate, he said, and it is recruiting for the fall. A top priority is to draw international boarding students.

“We’re small now. There are advantages to being small,” Rivera said. “And we’ll be small again next year. That’s a given.” He hopes to enroll 150 to 200 students in the fall, calling that a “reasonable, achievable” number.

Several parents who pulled their children from the school declined to discuss their reasons for the record. One expressed dissatisfaction with the curriculum; others worried about faculty turnover and the school’s finances.

Whittle defended the quality of education the school has provided but acknowledged some parents are skittish. He said he has sought to keep them informed about financial realities, opting for a policy of transparency in a bid to secure as much support as possible from the parent community.

On March 1, for example, Whittle provided families with an update on negotiations with potential investors. He expressed optimism that “we are on a path to concluding this capital program within 30 days, with 45 days being the latest,” according to a copy of a letter that a parent provided to The Post. He added: “I want to thank you for your immense patience as I know how anxiety-producing these days have been. I also know that you may be thinking ‘is it really going to happen this time.’ The answer is the four of us believe, if we stick together and continue the good progress of the past few days, yes, we will succeed!”

As of this week, Whittle acknowledged to The Post, the long-term investments he is seeking had not yet been concluded. He cited progress, including the refinancing of a building loan, which removed a foreclosure threat that had shadowed the property where the school is based. (The school is a tenant.) A broader capital package, he said, “is what we’re working on literally at this moment.”

Transparency is a “doubled-edged sword,” Whittle said. It can lead parents to demand more information even when deals haven’t been fully executed, contributing to a sense that financial stability is perpetually elusive, always just around the next corner. “You just can’t believe how difficult that has been,” Whittle said.

But transparency did help solve the payroll crisis in December. “I was really struggling,” he said, “and families stepped up. It was a nice Christmas Eve in that regard.”

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