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Chris Whittle's Global School

© John Madere/Mediaworks NY

An interview with Chris Whittle, former owner of Esquire and founder of Edison Schools, about his latest project: a global network of schools called Avenues.

Developed with a team of educational heavyweights, including former heads of Yale, Exeter and Hotchkiss, and backed by $75 million in start-up funds, Avenues bills itself as the world’s first “global school.” Opening in fall 2012, the flagship location is a 215,000-square-foot former warehouse in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, adjacent to the High Line park. (Early admissions for preschool through ninth grade is currently open; for information, go to avenues.org.) The next two, of a planned total of 20, are slated to open in fall 2014 in two yet-to-be-determined cities overseas. CEO Chris Whittle gives us a quick lesson.

What is a global school?

Historically, schools grew out of villages. They were rooted in their communities. Then in the last hundred years, a few schools around the world became what I would call national schools: Exeter here in the United States, Eton in England, Shanghai High, the Doon School in India. But there hasn’t been a global school yet, one that broke out of national boundaries. Avenues will be one school with 20 campuses around the world. Fifteen years from now we hope to have 30,000 students total—5,000 would be Chinese, 3,000 would be Indian, 5,000 would be Latin American, et cetera. If those campuses work closely together, it alters the whole mentality of the school.

What are the measures of success for a global school?

True fluency in a second language is a requirement for all our students. Language is not just about utility—it’s an indication of a lack of arrogance, it’s a way to understand a different culture. Second, we think it’s important for high school students to spend periods of time living outside the U.S., and not just in the standard places. So instead of Western Europe, it has to be Latin America, India, Africa, China. The third thing is a knowledge of world history, and Americans are not the only ones who struggle with this. Children all over the world need to understand other histories and other cultures.

Who will the school serve?

Some people are going to think this is a new international school for the expatriate community. That’s not what it is. We’ll welcome expats, but, for example, we expect 80 to 85 percent of the enrollment in our New York school to be New Yorkers.

What’s the annual tuition going to be?

It will be whatever the going rate is for top schools in each locale. That could range from $20,000 in Delhi to $45,000 in London. In New York it would be about $35,000 to $37,000.

So in what way will it make a difference, then? You will be serving a community that already has the advantages your school offers.

For the last 20 years I had a company called Edison Schools, where all I did was work on how to improve public schools. Edison has had a wide-ranging impact in that it spawned the charter school movement in the United States. Avenues is obviously different, but in my view it’s equally important for the following reason: Worldwide, we need a new way of educating children. It’s the whole reason I started Edison. I was looking for a better way.

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In what ways did you see schools failing?

One of the worst failures is not tapping into children’s existing motivation to learn. For the most part, schools are a suppressant to learning, not an accelerator. With minor variation, schools around the world are working off the same model: 25 kids in a box with a teacher in front. The teacher knows the answer, the students don’t. They work in groups, very large ones typically, meaning 15 or 20 students, and they aren’t trusted to own their education.

Your school will not be a box?

Architecture matters. If the entire school is classrooms, then kids are going to spend all their time in classrooms. In our school there are all these areas where kids are either working alone or in small groups. There’s a high degree of independent learning.

What worries you about this project, and what are you most excited about?

My worry is that we end up with a beautiful school filled to the brim, with a phenomenal reputation, and it does nothing for changing schooling, for advancing the cause of education. Because otherwise, what’s the point? On the flip side, we have an opportunity unlike any I’ve known. We have enormous talent around the table and tremendous resources. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Paul Holdengräber is director of public programs, “LIVE from the NYPL” at The New York Public Library.

Fact: Avenues’s Chelsea location will have 10 to 20 percent more space per student than most other New York City private schools.