New & Noteworthy School
By David Gibbons
To say that Avenues is a grand scheme with the potential for revolutionizing education as we know it would be akin to calling the Empire State a tall building.
Students at this brand-new, for-profit private school will experience language immersion in Mandarin and Spanish from age 3. During their 15 years at the school, they’ll study history and culture in a multi-year survey called the World Course; they’ll be required to concentrate in a personal area of interest—academic, artistic or athletic—through a college-major-like program called Avenues Mastery. They’ll take multiple trips abroad and benefit from local institutional partnerships as well as integration of advanced learning technologies.
There’s much more—all of it spelled out on the website, www.avenues.org, which reads like a detailed blueprint for the global school of the future—part practical handbook, part idealistic manifesto.
The brains behind Avenues is Chris Whittle, the bow-tied media mogul famous for reviving a moribund Esquire magazine in the 1980s then founding Channel One News, which offered free TV (with ads) to schools. Whittle reinvented himself as an educational entrepreneur, starting Edison Schools in 1992 along with former Yale president Benno C. Schmidt Jr., who also heads the team at Avenues. Edison may have fallen short of Whittle’s most optimistic projections, but it is acknowledged as the pioneer of the charter school movement.
For his next start-up, Whittle amassed $75 million from private equity and his own pocket, introducing Avenues in 2011 as an “idea whose time had come.” The school’s flagship location, a beautifully renovated former warehouse on 10th Avenue in Chelsea, bordering on the Highline Park, will eventually house 1,600 students, from preschool through 12th grade. A second campus will open in Beijing in 2014, a third in São Paulo in 2015 and so on, with the ultimate goal of 20 campuses worldwide within a decade.
“We are up to speed to the degree we planned it,” says Gardner Dunnan, academic dean and head of the Upper School. Dunnan, a former headmaster of the Dalton School, was instrumental in developing and implementing Whittle’s plan as well as recruiting a best-and-brightest roster that includes Co-Heads of School Ty Tingley and Skip Mattoon, who ran Exeter and Hotchkiss, respectively.
“The leadership team all came here because it’s a new school of thought,” says Dunnan. “It isn’t like going to run another school; we’ve all done that. This is something entirely different.
“We’re looking at current best practices and transferring some of that, but we’re also inventing new methods and approaches on our own. Chris Whittle is a brilliant entrepreneur, and he works harder than anyone I know. But the key is his rare capacity to entertain a really good vision, to pay strict attention to the details and yet not be a micromanager, and to really elicit all of the talents of his team.”
Word got out quickly in the pedagogical world; Avenues received more than 4,500 applications for 125 initial teaching positions. The school will also share its riches through professional development workshops. And, after a one-year test run, the World Course, along with its invaluable database, will be made available to all takers at no cost.
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