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

June 10, 2021 12:01 am

Pharrell Williams speaking during a June press conference announcing Gov. Ralph Northam’s plans to make Juneteenth a state holiday. | Photo courtesy Gov. Ralph Northam’s office

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 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. 

LeBron James opened an “I Promise” school in Akron, Ohio, in 2018 for some of that district’s worst student performers, and it’s gained generally positive reviews. Graduates who attend the University of Akron now have the chance to get additional financial aid under a scholarship program announced this year.

Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, however, had a rocky tenure as a co-founder of the Prime Prep Academy in Dallas, a charter school that opened in 2012. It closed in early 2015, and The Washington Post reported “the school’s brief existence was marred by crushing debt, administrative infighting and a trail of lawsuits.” 

A 2018 article at tells of forays into education by singers, athletes and others with varying results. 

None of that dissuades Leon Rouson about Pharrell’s effort in Norfolk. Rouson is a professor in the School of Education at Norfolk State University, and he says the Yellowhab project is “an effort to improve educational opportunities for all” – particularly for certain populations. “You have to give credit to that effort,” said Rouson, who’s been at NSU for 17 years and is a former public school teacher. 

Some celebrities believe they can help groups who previously have struggled in the classroom, he told me this week. “They want to have some kind of impact,” Rouson said. “It has to start with education. They grasp that.” 

Pharrell envisions his small private schools to expand to other locations. And there are no plans to seek local approval or funding to make the school a public charter, a Yellowhab official told The Virginian-Pilot. Such schools have sometimes been criticized for draining the public school system of funding and other resources.. 

Nor do I think this is a vanity project for the talented entertainer. He’s put his name, talent and money behind plenty of projects that he cares about. 

For the children who attend Pharrell’s schools, the experience could spark all sorts of possibilities. For their sake, I hope the project’s an overwhelming success.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]