Norfolk, VA – Pharrell Williams’ philanthropic arm is once again giving back to his home state of Virginia.
According to The Virginian-Pilot, the Grammy Award-winning artist’s nonprofit Yellow plans on opening a small fleet of private schools for students from low-income families. The flagship school will open in Ghent this fall for students grade three to five, expanding on Yellow’s decade of experience running summer programs.
“If the system is fixed and unfair, then it needs to be broken,” Pharrell said in a statement. “We don’t want lockstep learning where so many kids fall behind; we want bespoke learning designed for each child, where the things that make a child different are the same things that will make a child rise up and take flight.”
Dubbed Yellowhab — “yellow” after Pharrell’s nonprofit and “hab” after the name of the Mars habitat in the movie The Martian — the school will be tuition-free for at least the first year. One of the school’s earliest donors, the Walton Family Foundation, has spent millions over the last 20 years to support and promote charter schools.
While Yellow has other ties to charter advocates, executive director Mike McGalliard said the school isn’t planning to seek local approval or funding to make this school a public charter.
“We are very clear here that we’re not taking away from the city or the district,” McGalliard explained. “We want to be additive and not put any kind of onerous, intrusive impact on those institutions. It’s very important that we not disrupt that revenue stream.”
Pharrell reportedly chose Norfolk for the site of the first school because of housing segregation and the city’s plans to redevelop three public housing communities through its billion-dollar St. Paul’s redevelopment, which has displaced families across the area. So far, the majority of families who’ve left public housing have ended up in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods zoned for racially and economically segregated public schools.
“Residents (are) being displaced from their homes with potentially limited housing options available which limits options for the children,” Yellow’s Director of Engagement Stephanie Walters wrote in an email. “We have a great relationship with the City of Norfolk and want to be a part of the solution in supporting the community with resources and support.”
Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander added, “What happened was breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. To see that students had gone on to university and some of the Ivy League schools was just very impressive. That’s what we witnessed there. Because it’s tuition-free, Williams’ school will let children whose parents can’t afford private schools enroll in one if that’s what they want.”
The school’s curriculum will give priority to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) and will look to open a middle school next year as well as other schools. The first school opens on September 7. Families can apply for enrollment on Yellow’s website until July 1 and students will be selected using a lottery. The school will initially enroll 40 to 50 students.