Chelsea school will offer avenue to get a global education



A luncheon/launch event on Feb. 1 for a new-concept school drew a capacity crowd in Chelsea, but the focus went far beyond the Lower West Side locale.

Invited community members, parents and education advocates — including former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein; Teach for America C.E.O. Wendy Kopp; and CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein — politely listened and occasionally nodded affirmation as leaders of Avenues: The World School put forth their plan for fall 2012. That’s the preordained time when 259 10th Ave. — a 1928 former warehouse that bears the mark of renowned architect Cass Gilbert — will make its debut as Avenues’ flagship campus.

Presented as “A new school with global ambitions whose Chelsea location will be a template for things to come,” Avenues will school its students in the shadow of the High Line and mere steps from Chelsea Piers. Organizers frequently referenced a mutually beneficial relationship between the school and these two neighborhood institutions — also foreseeing synergy between artistically inclined students and local galleries. As for the school itself, renderings portrayed a space whose 10 floors and 215,000 square feet have been refitted to flood every classroom with natural light. Holding forth in those classrooms will be teachers whose annual pay/benefits package totals $110,000. In coming weeks, information sessions will be held for parents considering early enrollment. In 2012-2013, Avenues will have classes from nursery school to ninth grade. Grades 10, 11 and 12 will be added over the next three years. Avenues’ first graduating class will be in spring 2016.

“As the first truly global network of pre-K-to-12 schools, Avenues is uniquely equipped to prepare students to excel in the highly competitive and networked 21st-century world,” declared Benno Schmidt, Avenues’ chairperson. A former president of Yale University, who currently chairs CUNY’s board of trustees, Schmidt is only one of the major education names who’ve signed on to the ambitious Avenues vision of a 15-grade educational cycle to produce bilingual world citizens of the world.

Others include Avenues co-head Tyler T. Tingley, who led Phillips Exeter Academy for 12 years; Robert “Skip” Mattoon, Jr., also co-head of the school and former headmaster of the Hotchkiss School; and Nancy Schulman, head of Avenues’ early learning center and director of the 92nd St. Y’s Nursery School since 1990.

At the luncheon, Avenues C.E.O. Chris Whittle — who founded Edison School, now known as Edison Learning, in 1992 with Schmidt — equated the new school’s 2012 launch to Victor Hugo’s declaration that “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

In a telephone interview later, Whittle described the kind of student, and person, Avenues intends to nurture.

“We believe that, increasingly, life is going to get more and more international,” he explained. “Schooling is getting more international, and so your capabilities to navigate in other cultures are going to be helpful — whether you’re in the art world or banking.”

Whittle also emphasized the importance of fluency in at least two, preferably three, languages. Avenues will require all its students to make an early decision to study either Spanish or Mandarin. With an eye on things to come, Whittle pointed out, “America is destined to become the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world in relatively short order.” As for the reason behind their other second language of choice, Whittle stated, “The most spoken language in the world is Mandarin.” Currently, those who speak it are studying English at a rate 30 times that of those who are learning Mandarin. This discrepancy, Whittle noted at the luncheon, has immense cultural and economic implications.

Preparing them to compete in an increasingly global market, Avenues graduates will be urged to study abroad in Europe, China and the Third World. Beginning in middle school, Whittle assured, “Each student will be encouraged to participate in overseas learning experiences, with particular emphasis on China, India, Latin America, Africa and Europe.” Those experiences will take place in the 20 or more planned independent schools that Avenues plans to open during the next decade — in cities such as Shanghai, London, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Abu Dhabi and Sydney. All Avenues students, Whittle stressed, will benefit from highly individualized instruction and a consistent educational philosophy regardless of which campus they’re attending.

“We need new models of schools that break away from the centuries-old paradigm,” Whittle said.

But before Avenues realizes its grand global ambitions, it must first successfully get the Chelsea campus up and running — and, in the process, become the good neighbor it promises to be. At least one local group, Friends of the High Line, is optimistic. Joshua David, the organization’s co-founder, said, “Avenues has been a good neighbor to the High Line, and the school’s leadership is eager to become active and engaged members of this community.” As for the school’s basing its first, and flagship, campus in the shadow of the High Line, David said, “As we understand it, the proposed design is respectful of the building’s original design by Cass Gilbert and relates well to the West Chelsea Historic District.”

One luncheon attendee, Kathy Shea, executive director of the Parents League of New York, said, “I thought it was a fabulous concept,” adding she liked Avenues’ standard of fluency in at least two languages. “It’s in an area of the city that needs more schools,” she noted. “There’s a growing population in that part of town.”

Avenues has not set tuition for the 2012-’13 school year, but, according to school officials, it will be consistent with other K-to-12 New York independent schools, which average around $35,000. At least $4 million has been budgeted for financial assistance, and about 10 percent of students will receive some tuition aid.