The team racing to launch a school targeting the high end of the private education market in the District and China hit surprising snags in recent days on its Northwest Washington construction site in a futuristic building.
First, Whittle School & Studios faced questions about how to shield 75 children from construction noise, fumes and debris in a day-care center inside the complex at 4000 Connecticut Ave. NW.
Then, a D.C. inspector ordered a halt to construction because the project appeared to lack city approval for demolition. An orange stop-work notice was posted on the front door Thursday morning: “NO Demo Permit.”
The unexpected challenges involving the day-care center and D.C. government posed a complication for the Whittle School as it prepares to open in September in what was once known as the Intelsat building. A sister campus is slated to open at the same time in Shenzhen, China.
Educational entrepreneur Chris Whittle, the school’s chairman and chief executive, said the construction team is taking several steps to safeguard the children at Broadcasters’Child Development Center. In a letter to the center, Whittle wrote that noise has been limited during afternoon naps and air quality is being monitored. Work hours, he wrote, will be curbed on the floor directly above the day-care center. As a goodwill gesture, he said the Whittle School was prepared to contribute $100,000 to the day-care center and offer financial incentives to accelerate the center’s plans to relocate this year.
Some parents remain skeptical. “We understand the importance of quality and variety in education and wish Whittle success in launching his school, but we cannot allow him to endanger the well-being of our children and we will do everything in our power to make sure they are protected,” Agnes Hegyi and George Pick, who have a 4-year-old at the center, wrote in an email.
Chris Lisi, representing the day-care center, said the center had no comment.
“We’re open to their thoughts,” Whittle told The Washington Post.
Regarding the stop-work order, Whittle said the $187 million project has all the approvals required under federal law. He says it does not need a city building permit. The structure is on land the federal government owns and oversees under a 1968 law related to development of foreign embassies.
“We are completely in compliance in every way with our project and our construction,” Whittle said. “We’re preparing a document for all parties that demonstrates that. And we’re confident that everyone will shortly agree.”
Among the evidence he cited for his position, Whittle pointed to a September 2017 letter from the State Department that affirms planned uses of the building.
Asked about that letter, a State Department official wrote in an email Wednesday: “The Department’s position is this renovation project is subject to the laws of the District of Columbia. The Department refers you to the District of Columbia government for a determination of whether this project requires a District building permit.”
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) questioned this week whether the school had secured necessary building permits.
“From all we could tell, they are not immune from our local law,” Cheh said. “I want to ensure, if they are subject to our local law, that they comply.”
Whittle, a pioneer in the charter school movement, unveiled plans for his latest project last year. Whittle School, for students 3 to 18, will promote mastery of core academic subjects, student-driven projects, proficiency in multiple languages and off-campus leaning opportunities in major cities. It proclaims an emphasis on “personalized education.” The school — to be run for profit, unlike many competitors in the private sector — drew investors from China and elsewhere and a start-up team that includes veteran administrators from major universities and elite private schools.
The D.C. campus is expected to start with hundreds of students and expand to 2,500 in five years. Tuition will be $42,050 for preschool to kindergarten in the 2019-2020 school year and $49,115 for grades 1 to 12. Those are rates for day students. Others who live on campus will pay boarding fees. The school says it will offer financial aid and merit scholarships.
The 4000 Connecticut complex was built in the 1980s for a telecommunications satellite organization that left several years ago. It is a series of octagonal pods and atriums designed by Australian architect John Andrews. Whittle plans major renovations inside but no significant changes to the distinctive space-age exterior of glass and aluminum. Italian architect Renzo Piano designed the school’s interior.
Whittle said construction paused after the stop-work order. But time is precious as the school seeks to meet deadlines and enrollment targets. Days lost could prove costly.
“We’re not concerned about this technicality impacting our recruitment of students as we’re confident it will be resolved quickly,” Whittle said. “This project means a lot to the community in multiple ways, including . . . a major, highly innovative new educational institution.”