Chris Whittle's latest scam aimed at the richest strivers in Manhattan... Instead of a Pump-And-Dump like EDSN, the founder of Edison Schools, Inc. and 'Channel One' is going where the really big bucks are: Parents too rich and too dumb to know what money can't buy -- and who hate public schools...

There is was, a quarter century after the first Chris Whittle hype. Another story in The New York Times about another scheme from a guy who has pioneered the scams and schemes of the education business since the late 1980s. Veterans will remember the slogan, catchy if irrelevant: "Thomas Edison didn't improve the candle, he invented the light bulb..." That was Whittle. Always marketing his latest example of edupreneurship. It was either when he was promoting Channel One (the TV in every school if you force the kids to watch some commercials every morning). Or later it was Edison Schools Inc. (for a time EDSN on the NSADAQ), which has crashed and burned at great cost (to taxpayers and some of its shareholders from Philadelphia to Chicago and beyond.

Edupreneur Chris Whittle moves from market to market with his various scams, and always seems to find some new group to pitch his wares to. First is was "Channel One" back in the 1980s and 1990s, to cash starved schools and districts that wanted desperately to install TVs in public schools. Then it was charter schools, but after crashing Edison Schools charter schools in Philadelphia and in other places, Whittle moved out of the charter business, too. (He had also had some fun with a publicly traded company EDSN that cost small investors a fortune when its stock went into the tank). Now, with the help of the usual propagandists for "market based education reforms" Whittle is pushing one of the most expensive private schools in New York City -- and selling another round of Whittleisms. And you can bet that the latest Chris Whittle scam will continue to get hyped from the same people who brought America more than two decades of educscams trademarked by Christ Whittle. So on May 6, 2013, it was, again, The New York Times that devoted inches and photographs to pushing the latest.

At least this time, it wasn't poor people who were being scammed. The poor had been scammed, like the families that sent their kids to the Edison charter schools on the promise of a "computer" for every child. Of course, when they got there, they either didn't get a computer -- or got such an old one that the only profit left in them was in the tax write off that went to the corporation that "donated" them.

At least this time, it isn't middle class suckers who believed the stock "analysts" who pushed Whittle's stock when he was pushing -- Pump And Dump style that could have come out of a boiler room as depicted in The Sopranos -- a publicly traded version of his charter schools as an investment.

This time, and it may not be Whittle's last, it's some of the wealthiest young strivers in Manhattan, who are being taken in by the "research-based" version of expensive private schooling offered by Whittle and his cohorts. This time it's a private school in New York City. Thanks to The New York Times magazine, the world now knows about the "World School in Chelsea", which costs parents $43,000 a year, has its teachers working fourteen hour days, and, once again, has Christ Whittle's trademark.

Thirteen years ago, it was stock analysts at outfits like the late Merrill Lynch. Merrill's analysts continued to recommend that suckers "BUY" EDSN stock as the publicly traded shares dropped in value like a stone off a bridge, from $32 a share to less than a dollar a share. Substance caught up with the analysis who was rating EDNS stock and asked her, about half way down the final slide in price, why she was keeping it at a BUY. She told us that she had just lowered the rating to HOLD (which means, "Don't sell; it will come back...") while the stock kept tumbling. When we pushed, she began a tear-filled discussion of the "vision" of Chris Whittle. What she didn't know, apparently, was that as EDSN went down for the suckers who still paid attention to Merrill was that Chris Whittle and his closest colleagues had sold their stock when it "peaked." It was the suckers who held all that EDSN stock until it was delisted who got scammed. Tony Soprano would have understood, even before Merrill Lynch itself turned out to be the same kind of outfit, and was told to Bank of America.

All that can be said about this latest has two parts.

At least this time, Whittle is going after the wallets of the wealthy. He is playing into the usual sub-conscious twitches that he has played off for decades, using every marketing skill his P.T. Barnum life has provided him with.

And as usual, Whittle's latest scam is getting free PR from The New York Times and others who push such stuff.


Is This the Best Education Money Can Buy? By JENNY ANDERSON. Published: May 2, 2013 165 Comments

One night last winter, more than 120 parents filed into the black-box theater at Avenues: The World School in Chelsea, to learn about what their kids were eating. Ever since the $85 million for-profit start-up opened its doors in September, food had been a divisive issue. After the first week of classes, a group of parents sent a seven-page e-mail detailing concerns: there were not enough snacks, not enough “worldly” snacks like seaweed, zucchini bread with quinoa flour and bean quesadillas (so long as the beans came from BPA-free tin cans). Unlike other New York City private schools, with their decades of institutional wisdom, Avenues was founded on the premise that its parents were partners in building a new community. So it was ready to hear them out.

In the black-box theater, Avenues’ chief administrative officer helped assure parents that their kids’ diet was sufficiently organic, local and healthful. The regional director of its food-service contractor was on hand to address any fears about carbohydrates. A doctor from Mount Sinai Hospital was ready to answer questions about allergies. A 25-page PowerPoint was presented.

Everything in the black-box theater, like the Sol LeWitt line drawing on the wall, was researched and intentionally chosen, just like all the other details at the school. That was why many of the assembled parents applied in the first place. Avenues, which was founded by the media and education entrepreneur H. Christopher Whittle; Alan Greenberg, a former publisher of Esquire magazine; and the former Yale president Benno C. Schmidt Jr., was designed to be “a new school of thought,” unencumbered by legacy. It hired seasoned teachers and brought in consultants on everything from responsive classroom training to stairwell design. Mandarin or Spanish immersion begins in nursery school; each kindergartner gets an iPad in class. Students will someday have the option of semesters in São Paulo, Beijing or any of the 20 other campuses the school plans to inaugurate around the world. The cost for all this: $43,000 a year.

In September, Avenues opened with 740 students, from pre-K to ninth grade. And with those students came 740 sets of parents, many of them determined to design the perfect 21st-century school in their own high-earning, creative-class image. They were entrepreneurs and tech millionaires, talent agents and fashion designers, Katie Holmes, hedge-fund managers and artists who refuse to live above 23rd Street. And they wanted to be heard. The school subsequently formed a parents’ association, but it had no rules. So there was a debate about who got to go to the meetings and who got to vote. Bylaws had to be created, which, in Avenues’ case, meant collecting the rules and regulations of 30 other private schools so as to determine the best way to even make bylaws. “There was nothing in place,” says Jacquie Hemmerdinger, head of the standards and values committee on the Avenues Parents Association, “and they empowered 700 parents.”

A committee was created to manage events, like galas and book fairs and bake sales, even though, as a for-profit school, Avenues couldn’t hold any events that raised money. (Did Avenues even want book fairs, some wondered? That was debated, too.) A task force was formed to investigate the safety of the neighborhood after at least one mother fretted that her child had seen the upper outlines of a homeless man’s backside en route to a playground. The complaint became known as the butt-crack e-mail. Other debates waged over the classrooms (were there enough books?); pickup (it was mayhem); identification cards (the photos were too high-resolution); and the school uniforms (was anyone enforcing the policy?). “I think we underestimated the degree of their energy and creativity,” says Gardner P. Dunnan, the former Dalton headmaster and Avenues’ academic dean and head of the Upper School. “They would take over if they could. They are New York parents.”

And then there was the food committee. After the PowerPoint presentation concluded in the black-box theater, the questions started flying: Why so much bread? What was the policy on genetically modified organisms? Why no sushi? Nancy Schulman, the head of Avenues’ Early Learning Center, who was sitting among the parents that night, has a theory about the wealthy parents of young children. Privileged parents want to control everything in their kids’ lives. When the kids go to school, the parents can’t control what happens for eight long hours; hence, food. She dutifully worked with parents to implement many of their ideas, including more education about nutrition, and more snack time.

Parenting in a pathologically competitive, information-saturated city can make anyone crazy, even those parents lucky enough to be worried about fennel burgers in school lunches. And while Avenues offers its students every imaginable educational benefit — a 9-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, a Harvard-designed “World Course” — it has also tapped into an even deeper, more complicated parental anxiety: the anxiety of wanting their kids to have every advantage, but ensuring that all those advantages don’t turn them into privileged jerks.

As Manhattan, and particularly downtown, is transformed by a staggering infusion of wealth, there is a growing market for creating emotionally intelligent future global leaders who, as a result of their emotional intelligence, have a little humility. In fact, when the nearby Grace Church School was researching whether to start its own high school, it asked top college-admission officers what was lacking in New York City applicants. The answers coalesced around the idea of values, civic engagement, inclusiveness and diversity — in a word, humility.

And so Avenues students may run to their “Empire State of Mind: Thinking About Jay-Z in a New Way” “mini-mester” while passing a Chuck Close self portrait, but they do so with the intent of being “humble about their gifts and generous of spirit,” as the school’s mission statement puts it. “We wanted a school that was innovative and wouldn’t force our kids into any particular mold,” says Sheree Carter-Galvan, an Avenues parent and a general counsel at Yale University. Or, as Ella Kim, mother of a 4-year old, explains, Avenues took the anxiety of a New York parent — albeit of a certain type — “and designed a school around that.”

Last winter, a group of Avenues 4-year-olds ventured out to the 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel in Chelsea to view the work of John A. Parks, an English painter, who fingerpainted his childhood memories. Schulman thought it segued seamlessly with a unit they were doing on abstract art, which included studies of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Schulman, who always seems to be brimming with excitement, explained how the subject matter and the field trip were perfect for the immersion classes. “You can use the vocabulary in both languages,” she said, to learn about the art.

Whether it’s snack time or a field trip to a Chelsea gallery, everything at Avenues feels designed to assuage parental anxiety. The school has distributed a handout to parents that explains what kids are learning when they are doing various things: For instance, when they are making bridges out of blocks, they are really learning to build with shapes (and honing math skills); planning ahead (which helps with study skills); and recreating structures (thereby working on geography skills). On the first day of school, Topher Collier, one of New York’s top child psychologists and head of Avenues’ student success team, gave his advisees a package with 21 items and a printout that detailed the meaning of each. It included a star streamer ball. (“With proper goal setting, effort, monitoring and reflection, your goals are in reach.”) There was also a mini-parachute. (“Make mistakes . . . you’ve got a safety net. Sometimes our greatest achievements can come from failure.”)

What parent wouldn’t want this kind of attention? Ella Kim, a merchandising consultant for Coach, organizes a kind of salon for moms to discuss everything from neuroscience to technology to bilingualism in child-rearing. Kim, a voracious researcher, invited Ph.D.’s in child development to run the group so that it had a scientific basis and not just anecdotal musings. Petite, with long black hair, Kim is sharp and warm and aware of the hazards of overthinking how to be a good parent. “Our generation of parents, we are self-realized in that we know it’s not just about achievement,” she said. “The end of just achievement is a lot of disappointment. Our kids will find their excellence and their contentment in finding themselves.”

Kim’s husband, Charlie, who was born in Hawaii and raised in Nigeria, talked to the Avenues administration and ACE — Avenues Community Engagement — about what he learned in running his own technology company, Next Jump. When he and his co-founder started the company, while he was still in college, they hired the smartest, most motivated engineers they could find. Ultimately they fired two-thirds of them and mined their data to figure out the common thread of weakness. It was arrogance, he said. The success stories, Kim discovered, all pointed to humility. “Not meekness,” he said, “but a sense of failing fast and using it to grow.” The Kims said they chose Avenues because of the mission statement’s phrase about humility. “How do you build humility as early as possible?” Charlie wondered aloud.

The better question might be: How do you build humility at a school that costs $43,000 a year? Where students are tended to by a 10-person success team and are expected to find a passion — any passion — around which expertise, confidence and college admission may come? As the Kims spoke in their West Village town house, their son, Jackson, emerged in checkered pajamas from playing a “Star Wars” game on a Mac and broke into a number of songs in Mandarin, including “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” His aquarium was buzzing in the background, and his scooters, strollers and bikes filled up the entryway. The Kims may be concerned with ensuring that Jackson is humble, but they are also acutely aware of the advantages that speaking Mandarin will give him. “He will have such a leg up compared to his peers,” Ella said. “He’ll be so marketable coming out of college with that language fluency. There’s enough competition domestically!”

Avenues has more than a few contradictions to overcome in its quest to create humble and resilient leaders. The school professes to see past the American reverence for top-flight Northeastern colleges, yet it extols the degrees of its administrators, many of which are from those schools. And humility is not exactly evident at a drop-off that one parent described as a “Bergdorf Goodman buyers’ office.” Another noted that accepting Suri Cruise — arguably the most famous child in the world — seemed at odds with the rhetoric of the school. “I’m sure she’s a lovely child, but you aren’t holding up your end of the bargain about what this school should be,” she said.

Many parents defend the school’s mission by pointing to its $3 million in scholarships. Others suggest that its for-profit nature, which forbids donations, encourages families to contribute in more meaningful ways. “Avenues needs you as a parent,” says Tanya Tohill-Farber, vice president of the Avenues Parent Association. “They do not need you to fund-raise to exist.” On the suggestion of one parent, Whittle says, the school is considering inviting a handful of start-up companies and organizations to take up residence. Their success, or failure, would reinforce the lesson about taking risks.

After all, risk-taking is important to Avenues, a giant start-up itself. Avenues World Holdings Inc. raised $85 million through at least two private-equity firms (they are about to close another round of financing), and investors, including pension funds, typically expect returns of 15 to 30 percent on investments. Enrollment will grow to 1,100 students next year, Whittle says, with applications up 10 to 15 percent over last year. (The school, which goes up to 9th grade now, will expand to 12th grade in 2015-16.) Alan Greenberg, Avenues’ president, has said repeatedly that the school could have enrolled with the full 1,635 seats filled but chose to admit students more selectively. He also sent letters to families who declined the school’s offer of admission, explaining to them how they were making a huge mistake.

But for many among a new generation of wealthy New York parents without legacy roots at Horace Mann or Brearley, Avenues, without any legacy of its own, was a welcome option. Trinity accepted only 3.6 percent of nonlegacy, nonsibling kindergarten applicants for entry this fall. (By comparison, freshman acceptance into Harvard was 5.8 percent.) Jacquie Hemmerdinger, from the A.P.A., recalls trying to get her 4-year old twin daughters into Dalton for kindergarten. When they went to the parent interview, the admissions director, Elisabeth (Babby) Krents, held up the essay Hemmerdinger had written about her girls, covered in red ink. Who wrote this? Krents asked. “I got all hot and sweaty,” Hemmerdinger says. “I thought it was a bunch of typos.” Krents then told her that it was the best essay she had read that admissions season. (“I teared up,” Hemmerdinger remembers.) Her girls scored well on the kindergarten entrance exam, and Krents told her that they also fit the school’s need for diversity. She and her husband, a real estate developer, lived in a sprawling Georgian revival house on a tree-lined street that happens to be in Queens. Either way, they never got into Dalton. Avenues was happy to take them.

Avenues’ 215,000-square-foot building, a former grocery wholesale warehouse, is a monument to its ideas about doing things differently. Many Manhattan private schools feel like labyrinthine rabbit warrens; here light streams into the classrooms and the cafeteria and through its stairwells and envelops the gym, where the motto “You Miss 100 Percent of the Shots You Never Take” is emblazoned on the wall. Nearing the end of the first year, teachers and administrators still regularly work 14-hour days in teams, making improvements for next September: immersion in the lower school is being tweaked so that students will learn more math in English, more social-studies classes will be offered in other languages and so on.

But for all of its intentions, Avenues is also starting to feel like a lot of other New York City private schools. It is almost impossible to get into kindergarten — the school received 350 applications for 25 kindergarten slots — and many parents who applied thinking it was a “safety” school were shocked to be rejected. The upper school is considering offering French, a decidedly un-21st-century language, next year because of demand. There are now committees through which parents can formally vent, and 22 new positions being added to the A.P.A. Middle-school students will have a shorter school day next year; despite Avenues’ hopes that students would not overschedule themselves, many were falling asleep on their way to after-school activities. Parent-teacher conferences that included kids may revert to the old format of just parents and teachers.

Maybe there is something to those schools with 100 years of tradition. The staid staples that many Avenues’ parents initially debated — galas, bake sales, book fairs — are now materializing, by parent demand. In late April, a founding-families gala took place at Chelsea Piers. The previous week, the school was buzzing at its first ever book fair. Sam Talbot from “Top Chef” was doing a presentation on the fifth floor, while preschoolers in the black-box theater were making bookmarks with stamps of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. Face painting and glitter-tattoo stations were packed. A balloon woman was making swords and flowers, but also elaborate wings, pink flamingos and, for one boy, a bodysuit that was built around him. Schulman — ever attentive to the parents — was exuberant. She knew that a book fair, with Avenues panache, would comfort anxious parents. “I knew that books were important and that you turn it into a fun family day,” Schulman said, beaming. “This is the glue.”

Jenny Anderson is an education reporter for The Times.

Editor: Jon Kelly. This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 5, 2013. An article on Page 46 this weekend about Avenues, a for-profit school in Chelsea, omits one of its founders. Alan Greenberg, a former publisher of Esquire magazine, helped start the school; it was not founded just by H. Christopher Whittle, a media and education entrepreneur, and Benno C. Schmidt Jr., a former president of Yale.

A version of this article appeared in print on May 5, 2013, on page MM46 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Is This the Best Education Money Can Buy?.