Pharrell to Fund a Micro-School in Norfolk

Pharrell Williams

by James A. Bacon

Music superstar and Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams is not satisfied  with the education provided by public schools today. But instead of signaling his virtue through Tweets, he’s doing something about it. His philanthropy YELLOW is funding the launch of a micro-school in Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood that will deliver a personalized, hands-on alternative to traditional learning for lower-income children.

The school, YELLOWHAB, will provide a tuition-free education to an estimated 40 to 50 kids in its inaugural year. The philosophy behind the schools rejects the traditional classroom setting and standard grade systems, and will introduce a problem-solving-based curriculum tailored to students’ individualized strengths and differences.

“There are lesson plans. When we say ‘non-traditional’ it doesn’t mean we’re throwing everything out. Some things work,” YELLOW Executive Director Mike McGalliard told said WVEC News. “The best educational examples that we’re borrowing from are examples of project-based learning.”

Pharrell, best known for his infectious song, “Happy,” believes that every kid learns in a unique way that is not always accommodated in one-size-fits-all school programs. “Labels are so detrimental to children. They can carry them much of their lives. So Pharrell wanted to approach differently, and say, ‘Let’s access children differently, find their strengths and look for those differences,'” McGalliard said.

Children selected by lottery will be placed in groups of 10, called crews.

The school is partnering with the Walton Family Foundation, the YMCA on Granby, and the American Heart Association.

Bacon’s bottom line. I applaud Pharrell’s philanthropy and his willingness to experiment with new teaching methods. The educational system — both public and private schools — has been stuck in a regimented model devised by 19th-century Prussians that moves children in lockstep through the same courses at the same time at the same pace. Moreover, the nation’s inner-city public schools are hobbled by bureaucracy, red tape, low expectations, and, increasingly, a dogma that, by stamping poor Black children as victims of an omnipresent racism, deprives them of any sense of agency or control over their destinies.

I don’t know what Pharrell’s views are on those particular subjects, but it is promising that he recognizes the individuality of every child. I have every hope that the school will set high expectations.

Some of the methods sound like they were concocted in a West Coast education-school seminar, so I have no idea if they will prove effective. But if we don’t try new things, we can never advance. We learn both from victories and failures. I can think of no one better than Pharrell to push a project like this forward.