Washington International School was founded in 1966 by Dorothy Goodman to meet the educational needs of Washington's international community and American families seeking a rigorous international education.

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In the post-World War II years international schools were established throughout the world to serve the growing number of families, mostly from developed countries, posted abroad by governments and commercial firms. These schools usually were founded by a community of families of a particular nationality and followed the educational system and curriculum of that country. They were international primarily in the sense that they accepted children of other nationalities.

When Goodman founded WIS with three pre-school students in the basement of a Washington, DC house, she had a clear vision. Informed by scientific research on the capacity of the human brain to acquire multiple languages, especially in the early years, and marketing research that focused on the educational needs of international families in Washington, she imagined an independent school in which children could become functionally multilingual and at the same time well informed about world history, geography, literature, and cultures.