But despite the prurient interest among status-obsessed New York parents (“Move Over, Dalton” wrote the The Economist last week), it is in many ways less like the prep-school academies it shares a tuition price with and more like the charter school of Whittle’s dreams—sleeker, better funded, unencumbered by public oversight, and less compromised by education as public service than those he helped run at Edison. At those charter schools, the per-student budget was about $8,000 and Whittle has planned Avenues with a McKinsey-like focus on making the curriculum as lean and efficient as possible. As much as the flamboyant condo buildings it neighbors on the High Line, the school is a symptom of the teeming niche affluence of Bloomberg’s New York.
“I view this as the last rodeo,” Whittle says as we sit in the school’s third-floor cafeteria, which overlooks the park and feels a bit like the offices of an advertising agency, with proper seating and none of the old fold-and-roll picnic tables. The once boyishly Gatsby-like Whittle is now 65, his hair still a bit floppy, his trademark bow tie intact. Tennessee-bred, he got rich creating a series of advertising innovations—special magazines for college students, Datsun owners, and doctors’ offices—and made a splash in New York in 1979 when he and a college friend Phillip Moffitt bought a woozy Esquire. Whittle knows how to make friends (he’s an irresistible dinner companion and a Four Seasons regular; the best man at his wedding was Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel); knows how to live just beyond his means (very expensive architect Peter Marino decorated most of his houses and even designed the lavish Knoxville headquarters of now-defunct Whittle Communications); and has a knack for hiring established people to lend his upstart ventures their prestige.
He likes to think of Avenues as the summation of an interest that dates back to his first education-reform conference, in 1967, when he was in student government at the University of Tennessee and fighting for things like courses “more relevant to our lives” (as well as to ease the curfew on women’s dorms, in the name of increasing student liberty). “Private schools have a lot to learn from public schools,” he says, citing especially the benefits of frequent assessment (an idea from the era of market-minded, testing-driven school reform that gave us No Child Left Behind). “If you go back to the very first announcement of Edison, it was to do the first national network of private schools,” Whittle says. There were to be 1,000 of them, at a cost of billions, and he convinced the then-president of Yale University, Benno Schmidt (now the chairman of Avenues), to join him in the project. “And we were working on that when the idea of charters emerged, and some governors came to us and said, ‘If you do publics, we’ll give you the freedom to do them through charters.’ But it didn’t turn out that way.” He gives a quick, rueful laugh.
In 2005, as Edison was tottering, he wrote a book called Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education, which was often martyred in tone (with section titles like “Start Big, for There Will Be Those Who Will Bring You Down”), used lots of war metaphors, derided the existing school system as being a “cottage industry” that teaches in “Middle Ages” classrooms, and argued that “schools of the future will have an embedded culture of outrage.” He railed about how big pharmaceutical and aviation companies have huge “research and development” budgets, while education doesn’t. Whittle has always been a blue-sky brainstormer type, and it’s easy to see that he is a highly motivating boss, but his book is largely for the type of person who thinks principals should have M.B.A.’s and teachers should get commission, their bonuses dependent on improvements in test scores. Understandably, teachers unions weren’t happy about that idea, or his other big one, which is to free up money for raises by having fewer teachers.
But the book was also driven by a desire to improve the lives, or at least the scores, of underprivileged children, and it was most rousing when he asked the sort of question that is usually only asked rhetorically by people, like him, who summer on Georgica Pond: “Is it possible that somewhere inside us we don’t want everyone to be well educated?”
Where exactly Avenues fits into the ecosystem of New York City schools isn’t yet entirely clear. It offers financial aid even though, not being tax-exempt, the money comes from its bottom line. (Whittle says 10 percent of students get aid, about 5 to 10 percent less than at an established independent school.) Its language immersion is unusual, as is the “world course,” a social-studies curriculum that, Whittle insists, will be offered to every student in every country without national bias. Its centerpiece science program, robotics, is a staple at the city’s specialized high schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech—but is not very common at New York prep schools. Avenues is unusually devoted to the idea of globe-trotting study—if and when all the campuses are up and running, every student from middle school up will spend part of the year abroad, and there is a lot next door where Avenues hopes to build a dorm for visiting pupils. But most prep schools now offer study-abroad programs. Avenues claims somewhat higher average teacher salaries—over $100,000 a year—and while tuition is typical for a private school, several parents pointed out to me that since the school is for-profit, they won’t be hounded for donations, too.