'Avenues' goes to China

Updated: 2013-05-24 10:30

By Chris Davis (China Daily)

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'Avenues' goes to China 

Teachers and students are encouraged to use Avenues' light and airy open spaces. Above, a class meets in a hallway for an impromptu change of venue. Photos by Lian Liu / For China Daily

Chris Whittle is trying to reinvent US private education by launching a for-profit school in New York with 20 worldwide campuses, one of them in Beijing, Chris Davis reports from New York.

It's about 6,850 miles from a former turkey slaughterhouse on West 25th Street in New York City to Haidian district in Beijing.

In the next few weeks, groundbreaking may begin in the circle by the Sixth Ring Road for Avenues Beijing, the second of a planned network of 20 pre-K-through-12 schools worldwide that will use state-of-the-art technology and seek to instill the rethinking of education of its founder, H. Christopher "Chris" Whittle, who has been called a "pied piper in education entrepreneurship", a "visionary market genius" and "grandiose".

The first Avenues' school is in a 10-story renovated warehouse in Manhattan's Chelsea District at the corner of 10th Avenue and 25th Street and is finishing its first year of operation. It opened after raising $95 million in capital from private equity firms to convert the 215,000-square-foot stone building, hire staff and persuade parents to take a chance on a school that has no graduates.

"You're sitting in the most successful private-school opening in the history of the United States," the 65-year-old Whittle said during a recent tour of the school. "Our first year we had 2,600 applications and we selected 740 kids."

In addition to having no track record of sending graduates to prestigious US colleges like the other private schools in New York City, one of the big differences with Avenues is that it's profit-making.

After the Beijing school is operating - and if Avenues is profitable enough - schools are planned for Sao Paulo, then, over the next 10 years, London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, Mumbai, India, Abu Dhabi, Sydney, Singapore, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Johannesburg, and six more cities. Whittle told the New York Times in 2011 that it will take $500 million to $600 million to open the school in Beijing and the 18 other planned schools.

"It's one school with 20 campuses, which is very different from 20 schools," Whittle said. "People often confuse us with an international school," which is traditionally built for foreigners, Whittle said. "We want a very eclectic student body all over the world, as opposed to being exclusively ex-pat havens."

Same curriculum

And there are other differences: a global curriculum, immersion in either Spanish or Mandarin starting at age 3, and if you are a student at one Avenues school, you'll be able to study at any of them because they'll all have roughly the same curriculum.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education helped design the curriculum. The school is staffed by former heads of prestigious prep schools like Exeter, Hotchkiss and Dalton. A quarter of the faculty is from China, a quarter from Latin America or Spain, and half from the US. Whittle said that the school received 4,900 applications for 120 teaching posts and that 85 percent of the staff have master's or PhDs, "and the other 15 percent are working on them". The average faculty salary is $100,000, much more than at other private schools in the city.

Tuition for Avenues is $41,650, according to the school's website. But that's in New York and Whittle says it will vary by city. "Generally, our tuition will be similar to that of other great schools in the cities we are in. Here in New York it is roughly the same as the top dozen schools and the same will be true around the world," he said.

Kathryn Maleeny, who has a daughter in second grade and one in sixth grade at Avenues, acknowledged that the tuition is steep. "If we're going to live in the city that's what it is pretty much across the board," she said. "We're not an uber-wealthy family. We're definitely making sacrifices to be here."

She also had some trepidation about going to a new untested school, she said, but she also was "looking for passion, creativity, newness and relevance and bringing the time spent in school out of the Dark Ages and into what they were really going to experience when got into the real world".

Her family also liked the school's mission statement's emphasis on learning important habits of the heart and mind and turning students into "confident players on the world stage."

All signs at the New York school are in English, Spanish and Chinese. The school is "trilingual," Whittle said, with students choosing either Spanish or Chinese, as a second language. From ages 3 to 10, half a child's education is in a foreign language, half in English.

"So they are not studying Chinese," Whittle explained, "they are going to school in Chinese - math in Chinese, science in Chinese." And it alternates by year. "This year they may do their math in Chinese, next year they do their math in English."

In immersion language training, the teacher speaks English only in an emergency. "So the child may ask a question in English, they will never get an answer back in English," he said. "And they don't baby talk. It's rapid fire."

Whittle compares it to "cross-training", adding that "at the end of seven years students are conversationally quite capable in the language and have very good accents".

For the next four years, students continue with the language through more traditional instruction and in high school, and can either do advanced work or take a new language.

"We want everyone to graduate at least bilingual and hopefully trilingual," he said.

The school's "mastery program" takes students beyond the walls of Avenues, said Lara Southern, director of parent relations, "gaining 'real world' exposure, here in New York City, or even during study abroad."

When students reach upper school, each will select a subject they are passionate about - be it astrophysics, horticulture, photography, mountain-climbing, or whatever - and will work with teachers and mentors, some recruited from the parent body, who share the same interest, and design a final thesis around the topic. By graduation, the student will present the work to the school.

"The plan is that over a student's 15 years, they'll spend two and a half years overseas at different Avenues campuses, and that's completely integrated into the middle and high schools' curriculum," Whittle said.

The Beijing branch will have much in common with the Chelsea prototype, including an emphasis on integrating state-of-the-art technology in the education process and immersion language training starting at an early age. "The Wall Street Journal recently said this was the most technologically advanced school in the US," Whittle said of the West 25th Street school.

iPads and laptops

Each student is given an iPad and a laptop. "Their iPad is their book bag; their laptop is their work machine. All of their text, everything is put on that iPad," he said, adding that the school is moving to being completely paperless. The devices are curated by the school, tagged with GPS locators, insured, and updated every two years.

The school's technology hub is a suite of rooms. The wireless system can handle 5,000 mobile devices simultaneously. The whole school runs on the Cloud, no servers needed, and it has private channels on iTunes University, YouTube and others, for storage and student access.

Flat-screen monitors on hallway walls outside of classrooms broadcast students' work and other content. Whittle said that during the Chinese New Year, every screen in the school displayed Chinese art all day.

All middle and high school classes are conducted by the "Harkness method", a seminar-style technique developed at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire , where students and teacher sit around an oval-shaped table rather than the traditional rows of desks and blackboard. "All faculty have gone through the training," Whittle said. "It's a discussion-based class, as opposed to your lecture, drill and kill method."

The New York school's interior has light-filled stairwells and bays, vertical openings in the floors that connect levels, high, exposed ceilings, and large windows that give the bright and airy feeling of a loft. Built-in benches and sitting areas are tucked here and there and students are encouraged to use the entire space.

"The kids are not in class all day long," Whittle said. "They're working on their own or with each other."

In nursery and the lower school, a quarter of the faculty is from China, a quarter from Latin America or Spain, and half from the US.

Whittle said he wasn't sure if there would be a third language at the new Beijing school. "We don't know what that obvious third language would be," he explained, adding that "a lot of schools try to do too many languages and do none of them well."

The Beijing branch is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015, will have international and local licenses and a student body of 3,200, half Chinese and half ex-pat. It will have a 50-50 partnership with the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China.

"The head of [the school] is Madame Liu Pengzhi," Whittle said. "She is one of the most highly regarded educators in China and she basically invited us to Beijing."

Why did Whittle choose China for the second school?

"It's kind of obvious," he said. "We're called 'Avenues: The World School'. You can't make that claim without a presence in China. Though it's very complex to function there, it was absolutely critical to our mission. China: the second-largest economy in the world, destined to be the largest, hugely influential in the century ahead, it wasn't really wasn't a choice. It was: 'We have to do this', and we're all very excited about it.'"

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com

(China Daily USA 05/24/2013 page19)