‘If the System Is Fixed and Unfair, Then It Needs to be Broken’: Pharrell Williams Announces Plans to Open Private Schools for Students of Low-Income Families

Just a few short months following the grand opening of his luxury “good-vibes-only” hotel in Miami, Florida with business partner David Grutman, legendary producer Pharrell Williams is already setting his sights on another establishment geared towards students from low-income families. 

The Virginian-Pilot reported that Williams, along with his nonprofit YELLOW, is currently in the process of opening a string of private schools with the first set to break ground in Ghent, a neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. The school will be called Yellowhab.

Pharrel Williams performs during the 2019 ESSENCE Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on July 07, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

The news outlet reports the school would enroll between 40 to 50 students from anywhere in the city. They will be taught a wide range of subjects, including STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Tuition for the institution for third, fourth, and fifth graders will be free for at least the first year. The cost of attendance reportedly will be covered through philanthropic support.

Williams, who is a native of nearby Virginia Beach, reportedly chose that particular section of Norfolk because of the current housing segregation and future redevelopment of three public housing communities as part of a billion-dollar project predicted to negatively affect current residents. The public housing residents being displaced by the redevelopment are being presented options to choose where they want to relocate and to return to their former communities when the project is complete, but what typically happens is the majority of families end up in new economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and never return.

In a recent news release cited by the newspaper, Williams expressed, “If the system is fixed and unfair, then it needs to be broken.” He added, “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.”

The “Number One’” singer already has support from many, including Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, who’s also familiar with the producer’s work in the academic arena. Alexander told reporters when the two toured Harlem Children’s Zone charter school in 2019; he was moved by what he saw. During his commencement speech at the high school, Williams offered 114 “A-internships” to graduates.

Alexander said, “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.”

An assistant principal from Virginia Beach’s Landstown High School, James Avery, has been hired as the school’s site director, and the school is recruiting teachers. Doors open on Sept. 7, and a lottery for student applications already has begun.

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