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The District’s newest private school, Whittle School and Studios, is still very much under construction, but classes started on Wednesday anyways.
“The young kids are fascinated by it,” says Head of School at the D.C. campus, Dennis Bisgaard, of the workers in bright yellow helmets atop of ladders as he gives City Desk a tour of the for-profit venture. Nearby, students are working out of temporary classrooms.
So far, 180 students enrolled at Whittle School and Studios, the latest project of entrepreneur Chris Whittle. (He’s also responsible for a ritzy private school in New York City that Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise’s daughter Suri reportedly attends.) Whittle has raised $700 million from U.S. and Chinese investors to not only bring yet another private school to D.C.—there are 70—but to try to rethink education altogether. The price tag for partaking in Whittle’s thought experiment? Upwards of $49,115. And that’s just tuition.
The top private school, Sidwell Friends School, is just one mile away, serves the same age group of kids (Pre-K through high school) for thousands of dollars cheaper, and is fully constructed. So why would parents be tempted to enroll their kids at Whittle School and Studios?
“I think the families who gravitated have an entrepreneurial spirit. They are globally minded,” says Bisgaard.
He says families moved to D.C. from places like North Carolina and Kenya to send their kids to the private school located at Tilden Street NW, a neighborhood home to WAMU, several embassies, and one of the many Gold’s Gyms. (Whittle School and Studios even attracted and poached faculty from Sidwell Friends School.) Altogether, Whittle students come from seven different countries and speak at least 20 different languages. (Bisgaard let it be known numerous times that he speaks German and Danish. He’s more than happy to teach students these languages.)
Right now, it appears that parents are paying for possibility. The main academic building won’t deliver for months, as it’s still undergoing a $187 million renovation. The residential and arts/athletics “pods” are operational, but the academic zone isn’t and Medstar and Fusion Academy Washington D.C., who lease space in the building, can still be found inside.
As he gives the tour, Bisgaard outlines his vision for Whittle School and Studios: nearly every classroom has a television, where students would one day watch playback footage of students at Whittle School’s second campus in Shenzhen, China; and students would learn Arabic and mandolin at the “studios,” a glorified term for after-school programs (apparently, anyone citywide can join). For now, there are plenty of Chinese characters and flags from all over the world that try to promote what the school’s going for—that is training “globally focused learners.”
“We don’t want to be the school on the hill,” says Bisgaard.
He says at least one student from every ward is enrolled, and there is also need-based financial aid. Although Bisgaard wouldn’t provide the demographic breakdown of the students and staff, be it race or economic. He did say that faculty is 50 percent people of color. But there’s no denying the school is trying to attract a specific type of student, offering a scholarship to the employees from the 174 embassies in D.C.
On the Kojo Nnamdi Show, D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates President Maggie Riden asked what would happen if Whittle poured that kind of money and investment into public schools? City Desk posed the question to Bisgaard, who says: “Our ultimate goal it elevate education for everybody. So we are going to explore in our corner and if there are things that we might be able to expose and learn, we could give [them] to others.”
“You couldn’t do this global enterprise in non-profit way. In order to scale it, you have to have investors,” he adds, of the school’s for-profit status.
There are plans to build a foundation, where Whittle School and Studios would make these discoveries publicly available. There are a lot of plans. But like the building, they are still being worked out.