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‘It needs to be broken’: Pharrell Williams launching Norfolk private school

Pharrell Williams speaking during a June press conference announcing Gov. Ralph Northam's plans...
Pharrell Williams speaking during a June press conference announcing Gov. Ralph Northam's plans to make Juneteenth a state holiday.(Gov. Ralph Northam's office)
Published: Jun. 10, 2021 at 7:04 AM EDT
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Virginia Beach native and multiple Grammy Award winner Pharrell Williams has announced he’ll create a private school in Norfolk initially aimed at third-to-fifth-graders from low-income families. He will thus become the latest entertainer around the country to spearhead an alternative to traditional schools.

It will be called Yellowhab and provide tuition-free education for the original 40 to 50 students, at least for the first year. The micro-school, opening this fall in an as-yet undisclosed location, will offer “highly personalized education that knits together transformative learning opportunities at school, at home, online and in the community,” according to a news release. Students will be picked through a lottery, and the plan is to eventually open more schools.

There will be an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, art and math — or STEAM. The idea for the school is an outgrowth of STEAM-focused summer camps that Williams started in 2008, so he’s no stranger to educational leadership.

He also took a shot at the current school model, which he contends fails too many young people.

“If the system is fixed and unfair, then it needs to be broken,” Williams said bluntly in the release.  “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.”

Sounds a little amorphous to me.

Then again, I’ve never won a baker’s dozen of Grammys. Or boosted my hometown with an array of musical acts and other events over a weekend in 2019, thus helping to reduce the violence that Virginia Beach officials seemed powerless to prevent on previous College Beach Weekends. Or been a partner in an ongoing $325 million multi-use project at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.

It’s disappointing that so many schools, especially public ones, are failing their students around the country. We know the usual culprits: a lack of readiness by young students; inadequate school funding; the constant need for new construction and renovation; crowded classrooms and low teacher pay that devalues the critical roles they play. (Though the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many parents, thrust into teaching burdens at home, to re-evaluate their attitudes toward educators.)

Nor is the presence of a big-name celebrity a guarantee of success for these alternative programs, which often are charter schools. It’s easy to find results that run the gamut.

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The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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