A new $40,000-a-year private school opening in New York next year is promising to educate global citizens by immersing them in a second language from the age of 3, and to eventually offer a network of campuses around the world where the jet set can seamlessly continue their educations.
The for-profit venture from CEO Chris Whittle, whose Edison Schools sought to remake public education, is called Avenues: The World School. It will join the ranks of pricy New York schools like Dalton and Horace Mann when it opens in fall 2012 before expanding, Whittle and his partners say, to 19 more world capitals including London, Moscow and Beijing.
Avenues aims to run top-flight schools around the world while turning a profit, a goal critics question. But hundreds of New York parents have applied for early admission and are paying $8,500 in deposits to secure a spot in New York's ultracompetitive world of private education.
The idea that students can transfer seamlessly from the New York campus to the others when they open appealed to David Batten, a consultant and retired investment banker, and his wife, a semi-retired ballet teacher from Germany.
Their two trilingual children have attended the Lycee Francais in New York and are at school in Berlin this year. They're already set to enter the seventh and second grades at Avenues next fall.
"It really resonated with us from the first that we heard about it," said Batten.
Whittle announced in February that Avenues would open in a former warehouse building in Manhattan's Chelsea section. He and the school's other founders have held scores of parent events to recruit prospects.
The opening of a new private school has drawn interest from parents looking for any spot in a crowded market. As Whittle likes to point out, the number of seats at top private schools has increased only 400 in a decade, but the population of children under 5 in Manhattan has soared as young families stay in the city rather than move to the suburbs. And many of those slots go to siblings and children of alumni.
"It's unbelievably competitive," said Dana Haddad, an educational consultant and the former associate director of admissions at Horace Mann. "Families that are looking at private schools look at as many as 14 or 15. The spaces for non-connected families are very slim."
The private schools' $35,000 to $40,000 annual price tag pays for much smaller classes than public schools can provide as well as rigorous instruction and well-maintained facilities. Many parents believe that the right school is a crucial stepping stone to an Ivy League college and a successful career.
At an Avenues breakfast meeting last month, parents grazed on muffins and yogurt parfaits before gathering for the pitch.
Whittle told them that existing schools can't match Avenues' commitment to multilingualism. From nursery school through fifth grade, half the school day will be in English and half in either Spanish or Mandarin. Older students will add a third language.
Other private schools, or independent schools, as they are called, generally start a foreign language later than nursery school, and their language instruction is less intensive than Avenues' immersion model.
Whittle said Avenues would open in two cities a year after the New York launch. "We want you to imagine one school with 20 campuses in the world's great cities," he said.
The plan is for 80 percent of the curriculum to be shared among the different campuses, so a jet-setting executive whose company transfers him to Paris or Moscow for a year could bring his kids along without interrupting their schooling.
Whittle introduced key hires including the co-heads of school, who have run Phillips Exeter Academy and the Hotchkiss School, both exclusive boarding schools in New England. Avenues, which has raised $75 million from two private equity firms, plans to open with nursery school through ninth grade and will expand to 12th grade.
Parents said afterward that they were impressed, though not all were sold.
"If they can accomplish what they are describing, that would be something very special," said Dolores Hughes, who is considering Avenues for her eighth-grade son.
Ross Lewis, an artist, said he has been struggling to have his two daughters learn a second language well. "I applaud that they want to immerse the kids and I like that they start early," he said.
But he's not sure about choosing a school that doesn't exist yet.
"New isn't always better," he said.
Tatiana Platt, a former senior executive at America Online and co-founder of social networking site FameGame.com, is hoping her 2 1/2-year-old son is accepted into Avenues' nursery school.
Platt and her husband, architect Campion Platt, also have two daughters aged 1½ and 4 months, so they could find themselves paying $120,000 to Avenues for a dozen years or more.
"I was a little taken aback when I heard what the tuition was," Platt said. But, she added, "the language piece kind of justifies the price."
Whittle says Avenues will be his crowning achievement, though now he is best known for Edison Schools, now EdisonLearning.
Edison contracted with school districts and promised to educate children better than traditional public schools while turning a profit. But the company reported only one profitable quarter during the four years its stock was publicly traded on NASDAQ, and claims about academic achievement were not realized. Most of the company's business now consists of selling educational services such as tutoring.
Whittle says he is proud of Edison.
"We pioneered the charter school movement in America," he said in an interview. "Were we perfect? Absolutely not. In the world of pioneering, it's hard."
Henry Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College at Columbia University, called Whittle "one of the most optimistic marketers I've ever seen." He added, "He's very successful in getting people to part with their money and support his ideas."
But Edison Schools failed in its mission, Levin said.
But supporters say that with Avenues, operating outside the public school system will free Whittle to experiment.
"There's an excellent chance that we might learn more from what they're doing than from many efforts to reform public schools," said Frederick Hess, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Just because they'll have so much more opportunity to reform and reinvent."