Can controversial entrepreneur Chris Whittle create a new model for private schools?

Jim Rendon:

It’s opening day at the Whittle School and Studios, a brand-new pre-K-through-12 private school in Northwest Washington founded by Chris Whittle, the Coca-Cola-sipping man at the curb. Four years in the making, the school and its 185 enrollees represent the first phase of a global institution that Whittle plans to expand over the next decade into more than 30 campuses worldwide, serving more than 2,000 students each, with 150 to 180 in each grade. Two days before the scene in Washington, he was in Shenzhen, China, at the opening of the sister inaugural campus there. Rain came down in sheets like a monsoon, “but in China,” Whittle says, “it’s auspicious for it to rain.”

The Whittle School can use the auspicious sign. The school is the latest iteration of its founder’s long-standing vision of a new paradigm for education: international, individualized, experiential — and unabashedly for-profit. At 72, Whittle has a lifetime of these types of projects behind him, as well as a lifetime of not quite fulfilling the grand expectations that launched them. Like the Whittle School, his previous ventures — the Edison Schools, a for-profit charter school company; and Avenues: The World School in New York, a private institution — were begun with great fanfare and enthusiasm. But they never achieved their loudly trumpeted ambitions.

Now Whittle wants to reinvent private education from the ground up — to throw out old assumptions and build a private school that’s bigger, better and more in tune with contemporary life than any in the world. Students, Whittle believes, need a global education, so he has created a school where students will collaborate on projects with peers in other countries. Teachers will be able to transfer from continent to continent, bringing their lessons and experiences to the classroom. Students will be encouraged to spend about two years boarding at Whittle Schools overseas, immersing themselves in new cultures. “If all our students are not highly proficient in at least a second and hopefully a third language, that is really what we’d call a failure,” he told me. The company has offices and staff not just in the United States and China, but in India, the Middle East and the United Kingdom as well.

Perhaps Whittle’s biggest innovation is his business model. Like his previous educational ventures, and unlike the vast majority of American independent schools, the Whittle School will be run for a profit. Whittle insists it won’t affect the education. It’s simply, he says, the only way to raise the huge sums of capital needed to build and staff so many schools so quickly. So far, he has raised more than $900 million in direct investments and development costs borne by the real estate firms that will build and own his campuses. Yet that’s just a fraction of what this new network is projected to cost. Whittle has already been spending for years, recruiting top administrators and staff from the best private schools in the United States, China and the United Kingdom. Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano’s firm is designing every building (sophisticated — and expensive — architecture is another Whittle obsession).

Chris Whittle interview.