For over twenty years, Chris Whittle has been doing his best to teach the rest of us that schools ought to be run as businesses and education treated more like a product. Now he finally has his flagship store. Avenues: the World School opens this week amid the flashy condos, galleries, and public housing of West Chelsea—a retail-sleek, nearly $40,000-a-year nursery-through-college-prep institution with a bland name that vaguely evokes upmarket urbanism, and a customer base (the parents) who see themselves as early adopters, hoping the school will provide a secure future in the Davosphere for their children. Others are just impatient with—or excluded by—the admissions rituals of the city’s traditional private schools.
“We didn’t really do it for the meaning. We did it because it traveled really well,” Whittle says of the school’s name as I arrive, then introduces me to Avenues’ “creative director,” a branding guy named Andy Clayman. Whittle’s scrutinizing a video wall atop the main staircase that the kids will partially control; it features pictures of students linked together like digital Tinkertoys under the words “We Are All Connected.”
The screen later flips to show a gigantic Google Maps view of Beijing, menacingly orthogonal. Whittle has just returned from there, where he’ll be opening the second branch of the Avenues global network. They’re planning at least twenty schools, in the usual capitals of capital: London, São Paulo, Mumbai, Singapore, Abu Dhabi. He studies the Beijing map to try to find the school’s address by the Sixth Ring Road.
The school has pitched itself aggressively as a kind of boot camp for “global preparedness,” and students must spend a portion of their day learning in Mandarin or Spanish. For now, no other languages are taught. As Boykin Curry, a hedge-funder whose child with very social interior designer Celerie Kemble will attend, puts it, “It’s the only school we could find where our children will spend half their day speaking Mandarin, which seems important if you want to be able to talk with your company’s central headquarters in twenty years.”
All the signs around the school are trilingual, and many of them are designed to be thought-provoking in that inspirational-advertising way banks and oil companies have come to perfect. On the doors to the gym: play, participate, strive; on the cafeteria: renew; on the music studio: explore.
Whittle looks exhausted. Avenues has been a marathon sales job, from working the investors who backed it with $75 million to persuading gray-haired credibility-giving big shots who’d worked at Hotchkiss, Exeter, and Dalton to climb aboard, to smooth-talking parents. Before there was a mission statement, there was a logo—half of a globe, an open book on top completing the circle with its riffled pages. This became ubiquitous in the marketing, designed to give an air of inevitability to the school—not only that it would open but that it would be a solid Ivy launchpad. As a welcome-to-school video promises, students will be “at ease beyond their borders … artists no matter what their field … emotionally unafraid and physically fit.” Plus Suri Cruise is enrolling.
Other than language, the big marketing point for Avenues is that it focuses on student “mastery.” To some, that might sound airily meaningless (“We will support any passion … at the Avenues school. We know that really in-depth mastery provides important transferable lessons, which is long-lasting in self-esteem”), but to Avenues parents, it sounds like: We’ll figure out how to brand your kid for college.
That Avenues is a for-profit school seems to fit right in with that savvy calculation by the parent body, many of whom are foreign-born and members of what one prep-school admissions counselor calls the “transient financial class.” (Who needs a stuffy school, a century old and all the way up on the Upper East Side?) Of course, many parents want something with a track record at this price and wonder if it’s all a bunch of high-concept sales blather—and if they’ve done any research at all about Chris Whittle and his visionary habit of flying too close to the sun, that seems possible. An entire 1995 book called An Empire Undone was written about his business adventures (notably his pilloried Channel One, which gave schools free TVs in exchange for showing an in-classroom ad-supported news show). He spent about sixteen years helping pioneer the charter-school movement with his for-profit education firm Edison Project, with only mixed results. There, he contended with teachers’ unions, local politics, and schools that were full of poor kids to try to show he could make money while improving scores. He was pushed aside in 2007, but seems earnestly committed to Avenues as a private-school extension of what he calls “the Movement.” “It is liberating. You can do exactly what you want. There is virtually no regulation on a private school; you’d be stunned,” says Whittle.