The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Private school with global ambition to open in D.C. and China in 2019

An education company backed by U.S. and Chinese investors is launching a global private school for students ages 3 to 18, with the first two campuses scheduled to open next year in Washington and the Chinese coastal city of Shenzhen.

Whittle School & Studios will offer foreign-language immersion — Chinese in the United States, English in China — with a curriculum centered on mastery of core academic subjects, ­student-driven projects and off-campus learning opportunities in major world cities.

On Thursday, veteran education entrepreneur Chris Whittle plans to announce the debut of the D.C. campus in fall 2019 at a prominent site near a cluster of embassies — the striking aluminum and glass edifice at 4000 Connecticut Ave. NW once known as the Intelsat building.

The campus aims to enroll 2,500 students within five years of opening at a tuition comparable to what elite private schools charge in the Washington area. (Sidwell Friends, with about 1,150 students, costs $40,840 a year.) About 500 are expected to live in dormitories, and the rest will be day students. Some scholarships will be available, but the target audience is hardly the typical D.C. family.

“He’s going to shake up the independent school market in Washington,” said Thomas Toch, director of the FutureEd think tank at Georgetown University, who previously led the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington.

Some affluent parents might be curious about what Toch called “a new and flashy schooling option,” and others might be skeptical. “With the families he’s pursuing, he’ll have to deliver on several levels,” Toch said, “or they’ll just go elsewhere.”

In the rarefied world of elite private education, tradition matters, and “new” is often a hard sell. To bolster the credibility of the venture, Whittle has assembled a leadership team with prominent names in education, including Nicholas Dirks, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, and James Hawkins, headmaster of the venerable Harrow School in London.

Whittle, a pioneer in the U.S. charter-school movement, is betting on demand for an internationalist brand of education that also seeks to turn a profit. In a company manifesto, he dismissed “the old world of schooling,” which he says was “focused almost entirely on educating groups of children.” Instead, he wrote, the world needs more “personalized education.”

The goal, Whittle said in an interview, “is let’s build a better school. More specifically, let’s build the first modern school.” Plans call for a rollout of 36 campuses in 15 countries within a decade.

Those are audacious targets in a field crowded with visionary ideas that often fall short in practice.

The new venture marks the second time in recent years that Whittle has sought to push a for-profit school into the upper echelon of private elementary and secondary education. In 2012, he led the launch of Avenues: The World School in New York. That start-up, next to the High Line park in the Chelsea neighborhood, now has more than 1,500 students. It lured Evan Glazer, principal of Northern Virginia’s acclaimed public Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, last year to lead the school.

Most top private schools in the United States are nonprofit or religious institutions.

Whittle said the structure of the new school — based in New York, incorporated in the Cayman Islands — is simply a means to an end: “We are using the mechanism of the capital markets to do what we want to do. What we want to do is build a great school . . . This is a for-profit institution, but it’s deeply committed to what it’s doing.”

Among his recruits, Dirks will be chancellor, and Hawkins will be global head of all schools. The president is Ian Thomas, a former senior executive with the Boeing Co. in Europe, Australia and Asia.

Leading a global advisory board are Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale University, and Jean Liu, president of the Chinese ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing.

Hawkins said he was drawn by the project’s emphasis on student creativity, social responsibility and global exchange. Students will be encouraged to study at one or more campuses abroad. Ten to 15 percent will be offered need-based financial aid.

“If you look at the scale and ambition of what’s being done here, you could ask the question how else could it be done without huge investment,” Hawkins said. “The for-profit model does make sense, I think, when considering that.”

For Whittle, 70, the school represents perhaps his final act in decades of educational ventures. He began his career in media, establishing a business that for a time owned Esquire magazine. In 1989, he launched Channel One, a program delivering news and advertising in schools. Critics said it exposed students to too many commercials.

In the early 1990s, the Tennessee native teamed with Schmidt to found Edison Schools, which sought to improve public schools through alternative management. The for-profit company generated controversy and mixed results, falling far short of its lofty reform goals. It weathered a rocky financial period in the early years of the last decade and later reorganized under new leadership. But under Whittle, Edison also helped fuel what was then a nascent charter-school movement, including the Friendship Public Charter Schools in the District.

Whittle serves on the boards of Friendship and of the Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools, private school vouchers and educational choice.

His new school plans to sponsor trips for D.C. Friendship students to China. Donald L. Hense, chairman of the Friendship board, said Whittle has had “tremendous impact” on a charter network with more than 4,200 students in the city.

Global education has long been a passion for Whittle. Avenues, in Manhattan, was conceived as a global project. It expects to open a sister campus in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in August.

But Whittle, who resigned from Avenues in 2015, wants to scale up fast. He has shuttled between New York and China in recent years, lining up equity, leadership and design teams for his new school. He said the school has raised $168 million for operations and coordinated $450 million to finance the upgrade and construction of its campuses.

His board roster includes executives in investment firms such as Hony Capital in China. The cost of renovating the 4000 Connecticut building is expected to be $185 million.

None of the financing comes from the Chinese government, Whittle said. “It is all private. We receive no special subsidies, and we are a taxpayer.”

One morning this week, Whittle showed off demonstration classrooms and dorm rooms at what will become his school’s D.C. home.

Built in the 1980s for a telecommunications satellite organization, on a site owned by the State Department, the space-age office complex designed by Australian architect John Andrews is laid out as a series of octagonal pods with soaring atriums. The exterior will remain the same, but Italian architect Renzo Piano (among his credits are the Pompidou Center in Paris) is redesigning the interior.

Whittle is fixated on details: the double-thick glass walls to let light into classrooms but muffle noise, the choices yet to be made between rolling glass boards and whiteboards for instruction, the arrangement of desks in ­seminar-style circles, the tilting and swiveling action of chairs students will use.

“We’re not for a ‘fancy’ school,” he said. “We’re for a well- ­designed school.”

Neighboring the new school are the University of the District of Columbia and the embassies of China, Jordan, Israel and several other nations. Whittle’s team has much to do before opening day in September 2019: prepare the campus, hire the faculty, recruit the students. The same process is unfolding simultaneously in Shenzhen, a major Chinese city next to Hong Kong. The next two campuses are planned for China in 2020 in Hangzhou and Nanjing, with more to follow in Los Angeles, London, Mumbai and elsewhere. In all, Whittle said, he wants 90,000 students worldwide and 10,000 teachers.

The chances that the school won’t open? “Zero,” Whittle said. “Zero. The fleet has long since left the port.”