A Startup In Our Midst – Avenues: The World School

I have a new obsession.

But unlike my other new obsessions – the new fall television lineup and patterned pants – this one is related to my career interests.

I am obsessed with Avenues: The World School, New York City’s latest addition to the urban private school landscape. The school has emerged from its quiet early stages into a very public spotlight, compounded by Suri Cruise’s recent enrollment as a first grader. Avenues combines two career loves: private school education and startups. Avenues, a for-profit independent school, hopes to redefine private school education and disrupt an industry that predates our country.

Starting from a gorgeous, massive building in Chelsea designed by Cass Gilbert, Avenues has rethought every aspect of the classroom education. iPads are issued to every student, mandatory Mandarin and Spanish instruction begins in nursery classrooms, the promise of campuses spanning the world. Avenues is aggressively investing in globalization and technology from the outset.

Its administrative leaders were handpicked from some of the world’s best secondary schools including Hotchkiss, Exeter and Dalton. Avenues is setting a standard for measuring achievement with parallels to leading charter schools.

But despite unmatched facilities, an innovative curriculum, strong leadership and blue-chip investors, the startup school lacks one key component that money can’t buy: a strong alumni network.

Avenues leadership realizes this potential weakness.  At a recent parent reception, New York Magazine quoted the school’s academic dean as saying, “We were very, very selective in admitting ninth-­graders, because we knew that they are going to define how this school is viewed over the next decade.”

From my vantage point at EverTrue, I have to ask, how will a lack of alumni community affect Avenues five, ten, fifty years from now? Will the for-profit model buffer them from fundraising requirements and associated alumni engagement efforts? Will the international focus lead to disconnected alumni? Or will Avenues attempt to redefine the concept of an alumni community without the underlying tension of an impending “ask”?

According to the Avenues website, while there is a robust admissions and leadership team, there is no development staff (and clearly no director of alumni relations). Avenues will graduate its first class from the school and off to college in the Spring of 2016, adding an upper school class over the next three years.

In a 2011 NYT article a prospective parent questions, “Yet in the back of my mind, Avenues has no history, nothing to support itself.” She compared it to a new model car: You might like it enough to buy, she said, “but what if it’s recalled? Then what do I do?””

In a world of headlines dominated by the potential disruption of education, the emergence of the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) and the development of for-profit education models, the history and traditions of alumni networks may be the key thread that shields legacy institutions from such sudden change.

I applaud the leadership team, students, parents and visionaries at Avenues. They are risk takers with potential for failure, but also potential for excellence. After a year at a startup watching something grow from the ground up, I believe they can be successful.  If Avenues succeeds, is it hard to imagine a group of faculty and investors from Harvard, Yale & Princeton or Williams, Amherst & Bowdoin attempting the same sort of disruption in higher education?

As it says around the gym atop the Avenues Chelsea campus, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

Ever True!

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