Whittle suspends work at DC school after financial problems

The Whittle School & Studios is closing its full-time Washington campus this fall, ceasing operations at the U.S. branch of what was envisioned as a global, multi-continental private school.

The announcement to the Whittle families on Friday night follows months of financial turmoil at the ambitious for-profit venture launched by veteran educationist Chris Whittle.

He said they made the decision late Thursday after learning a key financial deal had been delayed.

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

This expensive school promised a global education. It is hardly a solvent.

“It is devastating to break this news to you…” Whittle wrote in a letter to families. “I know how committed you all have been to the school over the past four and a half years since we announced our opening here; the enormous inconvenience it brings to your families; and how patient everyone was as we all suffered through this terrible time together. Similarly, the Whittle team invested 7.5 years from the day we started planning the Washington campus and this is a huge disappointment for them as well.”

He said by phone Friday that he will work to find other schools for the students in Washington, as well as jobs for staff either overseas or domestically. They also hope to have summer, evening, weekend and other programs in Washington separate from regular school.

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

This school year ended with less than 130 students and 14 graduates.

Whittle said it’s an effort disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, as travel, personal learning and cultural exchange have been suspended and funding weakened.

And the school faced what Whittle called the regulatory drama in China, with changes in the way private schools are organized and financed.

Whittle said the pandemic derailed or delayed other expansion efforts, resulting in the loss of $100 million in investments at the school — more than a third of what he had counted on.

A few days before Christmas last year, with the school late in sending salaries to employees, Whittle asked investors, friends and family for urgent financial help. Parents helped cover 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 made the D.C. campus work.

However, financial problems continued. In a letter to families, Whittle said the stock market slump and rising interest rates “delayed transactions to fill our capital position” in Washington. “Any one of the above challenges could have dragged down the DC campus, but the combination of them simply proved too much for us to navigate here in DC,” he wrote.

In the past month, legal problems have further complicated her financial prospects. The Washington Business Journal reported that the owners of the Van Ness building sued in June to evict the company for allegedly failing to pay millions of dollars in property taxes and rent.

A private school with global ambitions to open in DC and China in 2019

When the Whittle School was launched, officials envisioned a community college that would serve students in 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.

A major retailer of for-profit education

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

He said officials hope to generate revenue to repay parents at the D.C. school.

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

He wrote that “we are all saddened beyond words by this result”.

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

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