Has Avenues Mastermind Chris Whittle Learned His Lesson?

Scrappy media whiz kid–turned–education heretic crams for his make-up exam.

Not unexpectedly, the issue of uniforms also provoked a raging debate. In the end, they settled on a subtle look: black, grey and white, with “lots of mixing around,” Mr. Whittle said. “Our strategy is, on the street nobody knows you’re in a uniform, but when you’re in the school it becomes apparent.”

Mr. Whittle, it must be said, is partial to a uniform himself—he is almost never seen without a bow tie and sweater. “One day about 30 years ago, I said, ‘I like what I’m wearing. Why don’t I just wear it every day?’ So that’s what I did. It’s a great thing.”

While Avenues’ first classes are still months away, enrollment has gone well, Mr. Whittle said. Contrary to anonymous reports on UrbanBaby suggesting that the school is taking anyone with the means to pay, The Observer heard several examples of seemingly qualified kids who were turned away, something of a surprise given how many spots were available for the first year. Mr. Whittle, who estimated that the school would open with somewhere between 700 and 800 students, said that he was careful not to give the admissions department a quota, but instead instructed them simply to assemble the best possible class. He added that the New York campus has already broken even.

New York’s cut-throat independent school community seems ready to declare the roll-out a measured success. “They’ve done an absolutely terrific marketing job,” noted Emily Glickman of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting. “For a school that has yet to exist they have inspired tremendous interest and even created a feeling of scarcity, which is pretty amazing when they have so many seats to fill.”

In addition to an expensive-looking website and a slick ad campaign in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Observer and elsewhere, Avenues has done a “big keyword buy,” Ms. Glickman noted. “I’ve searched for my own name and they’ve come up!”

“I think there were a lot of people who said, ‘Serious advertising will backfire, because it’s just not something good schools do,’” Mr. Whittle acknowledged. “I think we proved that’s not true.”

“Personally, it doesn’t feel right to see schools marketed like that,” said Victoria Goldman, author of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools. “It feels aberrant, but it’s worked for them. They’ve increased awareness. It’s a genius marketing plan.”

“The widespread feeling is that this is a desirable club to get into,” Ms. Glickman said. “They have really studied what gets the 21st-century parent excited.”

Among those key elements: a serious language-immersion program that begins in nursery school, in which each child chooses a second language (Mandarin or Spanish) and spends fully half of every school day in a classroom in which all lessons and materials are in that language through fourth grade. The global approach also seems to be a big draw, as is the dream team of educators. Avenues has assembled an impressive faculty not only by highlighting the opportunity to create a new school from scratch but by paying up to 25 percent more than its competitors. “They’re coming after a lot of people,” noted David Harman, headmaster of Poly Prep. “We’re all afraid. We have a great head of the Chinese program. I think, ‘Are they coming after her?’”

Nonetheless, many parents are still proceeding with caution. Some are troubled by Avenues’ for-profit status (most independent schools are not-for-profit). Others don’t want their children to be the “guinea pigs,” as one mother put it. “As a general rule, nobody wants to be in a new school,” Ms. Glickman noted. “Parents are worried children will walk in the front door and the ceiling will fall on their head. Nothing is known and they don’t want to be left holding the bag. You could enter and suddenly the school gets a bad rap and your child is stuck.”

Most top-tier schools are judged by outgoing college placements, a yardstick that’s not yet applicable to Avenues. “The trouble with saying, ‘We’re going to be the best,’ is that it’s 10 years before that message is understood by colleges,” noted Jeff Beard, director of the International Baccalaureate, which offers standardized curricula recognized around the world (Avenues has chosen not to offer an IB program for now).

“It took us 50 years to achieve what they want to do right away,” said Dwight chancellor Stephen Spahn. “They have really good people at the top. They have good ideas, but it takes five years to get the kinks out. We’ve been around 140 years.”

Given the scarcity of desirable schools in New York these days, none of that may matter. “We have so many clients staying in the city longer, and when the music stops, great kids don’t have a chair,” Ms. Renault said. She added that increased demand had created “a perfect storm” in Manhattan, where even the once fail-safe plan of buying a home in an area with a decent zoned school was no longer a guarantee. “We have parents who buy near P.S. 41,” in Greenwich Village, “where the average apartment value is $1 million, and at the last minute they’ll find out there’s no room.”

“There’s a lot of excitement about Avenues,” said a mother of a prospective kindergartner. The girl got 99 on the ERBs, her mother said, and had strong recommendations and connections. She applied to 10 schools, got into two and was waitlisted at three more. In the end, the family chose Avenues. “We and the other parents we know feel like pioneers,” the mother said. “We feel like we’re going to be in this together. Part of it is there are people out there who want it to fail—why, I don’t know. But we want to prove it can be done.”

Mr. Whittle may have something to prove as well. The mother had watched the saga of Edison with alarm, but “meeting him now, I’ve overcome all my misgivings,” she said. “The fact that he’s had such a hard time of it—clearly he wants to make this work. It’s his reputation on the line.”

The motivation for Mr. Whittle has more to do with what he’d like to accomplish, he said, than saving face. “I view my entire career as an evolutionary process, and I hope I’m learning all the time.”

He seemed confident that the New York campus would be a smashing success—he has rarely lacked for confidence—but Mr. Whittle made it clear that merely launching a first-rate school was not enough for him. “What I hope,” he said, “is that a decade from now people will look at it and go, ‘That’s what a new kind of school looks like.’

“To me the biggest risk is that we’re just another fine school,” he added. “If that’s all we are, this was a waste of time. That’s not what this is about.”

[View the slideshow: The Road to Avenues]

Has Avenues Mastermind Chris Whittle Learned His Lesson?