Innovators & Disruptors: Education for the Future

by Erica Moody

Chris Whittle’s new private school in Northwest Washington aims to produce the next generation of global citizens.

The Whittle School & Studios Van Ness campus is skillfully designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Photo Courtesy by Whittle Schools.

When looking for a city to launch the first Whittle School & Studios in the U.S, to coincide with the Fall 2019 opening of a school in Shenzhen, China, education entrepreneur Chris Whittle found Washington, D.C. to be a perfect fit.

“We chose Washington because it’s one of the most international cities in the United States and Shenzhen is the Silicon Valley of China in many respects, very entrepreneurial,” he explains by telephone from China. “We like the connection and interestingly, the first nonstop flight from D.C. to Hong Kong just launched about two months ago.”

Whittle School & Studios Founder Chris Whittle. Photo Courtesy of Whittle Schools.

Whittle, one of the original founders of the charter school movement in the U.S., has moved entirely into the private school space with his new concept, a pre-K-through-12th-grade model that he calls the “first global school that we also hope will be viewed as the most modern one as well.” He imagines 36 campuses in 15 countries over 10 years with an enrollment capacity of 90,000 students and he has raised $700 million for the effort. The open, expansive and eco-friendly Washington campus in the former Intelstat building sits on more than 13 wooded acres with an elegant and child-friendly design by Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Several factors make the school particularly “global.” Immersive language learning of Mandarin begins in pre-K. In Grade 3, students will have the choice to continue with Mandarin, switch to Spanish or do both. In addition, multiple languages will be offered at Whittle Studios, the extracurricular arm of the project. Each Whittle School in cities across the world will be integrated into one educational program, allowing for seamless study abroad opportunities. “They might spend a semester in Beijing or a summer in Paris. It allows both students and faculty to experience the world but stay within one school.” And each school will be connected with the most modern technology.

Diversity is key. “We built a very global and diverse team from the beginning,” Whittle notes. Faculty and staff are 40 percent from the U.S., 30-40 percent from China and the rest from elsewhere. While standard tuition begins at $40,000 per year, need-based financial aid is available and scholarship opportunities fund gifted students from 50 to 100 percent; an estimated 300 students (of the 2,500 total here) will be scholarship recipients.

“It’s going to be very important that Whittle School & Studios reflect the demographic of Washington,” says school head Dennis Bisgaard. “In D.C. you have 174 embassies and people from all over the world, so it’s a great city to start a school like this. We don’t want to be the school on the Hill; we want to be part of the community.”

Three options are available: a full day school for local students, five-day boarding for local and regional students (grades 8-12 only) and a full boarding for national and global students. There’s a nine-to-one student to faculty ratio, with a typical class size of 15 to 20 students.

A personalized approach with an advanced advising system, Whittle says, is what most sets the school apart. “We have an entire team working on just the advising system of the school. We think a school needs to know its children in a very deep way and know their strengths, their weaknesses and be guiding them.”

“We want school to feel different,” Bisgaard adds. “Oftentimes there is such a level of rigor that stress becomes overwhelming for kids. They want to be perfect and often the high-achievers feel inadequate or don’t quite have the confidence. There are a lot of schools that somehow produce rule followers, which is not a bad thing, but if you always perform because you think a task has to be done in a certain way, some of the creativity and problem-solving is diminished.”

Whittle Schools is now accepting applications for age 3 through grade 10 for Fall 2019. The School is currently under construction, but modified site tours will be available in the near future on a case by case basis. Visit for more details.

This story ran in the November 2018 issue of Washington Life. 

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