Whittle suspends operations at DC school after financial troubles

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The Whittle School & Studios is closing its full-time Washington campus this fall, suspending operations for the U.S. branch of what had been envisioned as a global private school on multiple continents.

The announcement to the Whittle families on Friday night came after several months of financial turmoil at the ambitious for-profit venture launched by veteran education entrepreneur Chris Whittle.

He said they made the decision Thursday night after learning that a critical funding deal had been delayed.

The decision leaves Washington students, teachers and staff scrambling just weeks before the next school year.

This expensive school promised a holistic education. It’s barely dissolving.

“It is devastating for me to share this news with you…” Whittle wrote. in a letter to families. “I know the commitment you all have made to the school over the past four and a half years since we announced our opening here; the immense inconvenience this entails for your families; and how patient everyone has been as we all suffered through this terrible time together. Likewise, the team at Whittle has invested 7.5 years since the day we started planning the Washington campus and this is a serious disappointment for them as well.

He said by phone Friday that they would work to find other schools for students in Washington and jobs for staff members overseas or domestically. They also hope to have Washington-based summer, evening, weekend and other programs separate from the full-time school.

The Whittle School launched with a September 2019 opening in the Chinese coastal city of Shenzhen, followed days later by the opening of a northwest Washington campus in a neighborhood full of embassies and private schools. The Connecticut Avenue School hoped to one day serve 2,000 day and boarding students, ages kindergarten through high school, with tuition costs of more than $40,000 a year.

It finished this school year with less than 130 students and 14 senior graduates.

Whittle said the effort was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, as travel, in-person learning and cultural exchanges have been suspended and funding has waned.

The school also faced what Whittle called the regulatory drama in China, with changes to how private schools are organized and funded.

Whittle said the pandemic has derailed or delayed other expansion efforts, resulting in a loss of $100 million in investments for the school, more than a third of what he was counting on.

A few days before Christmas last year, when the school was late in sending out paychecks to employees, Whittle appealed for emergency financial assistance from investors, friends and family. The parents helped cover the payroll.

Others pulled their children out of school, tired of the uncertainty.

Whittle told the Post earlier this spring that $30 million in loans and investments kept the DC campus running.

Yet the financial problems continued. In the letter to the families, Whittle said the falling stock market and rising interest rates “has delayed transactions to rebuild our capital,” in Washington. “Any of the challenges above could have sunk the DC campus, but their combination just proved too difficult for us to navigate here in DC,” he wrote.

Over the past month, legal issues have further complicated its financial outlook. Washington Business Journal reported that the owners of the Van Ness building sued in June to evict the business for allegedly failing to pay millions of dollars in property taxes and rent.

Private school with global ambitions to open in DC and China in 2019

When the Whittle School was launched, officials envisioned a common faculty serving students from multiple cities around the world with a curriculum focused on experiential learning and foreign languages. Whittle talked about opening 36 campuses in 15 countries in the coming years.

The master salesman of for-profit education

Whittle’s campus in Shenzhen will remain open and they plan to launch another campus in China in the fall, he said, as well as working on a future campus in Europe.

He said officials hoped to generate revenue to reimburse DC school parents.

“Parents have been very helpful over the past few months as these fundraising efforts have been delayed,” he said in a phone interview. “The parents helped us a lot.

He wrote that “we are all sad beyond words about this result”.

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

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