Philanthropist couple Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are investing in yet another educational venture, this time in their own backyard: a private, pre-K through eighth-grade school in East Palo Alto that will integrate health and education to serve disadvantaged children.
The founder of Facebook and his wife, a former teacher and now pediatrician at San Francisco General Hospital, have partnered with East Palo Alto's Ravenswood Family Health Center to open The Primary School, a comprehensive "school and service model that supports the development of the whole child," reads the school's website, which includes information in both English and Spanish.
"Our approach integrates primary education and primary care, effectively braiding together education, health, and family support services starting at birth," the website description reads. "In doing so, TPS will expand the traditional definition of 'school' in order to prepare all children to succeed in college, career, and life."
Chan, who will serve as The Primary School's CEO, wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday that her own experience running an after-school program in a low-income housing project and working as a pediatrician in a "safety net" hospital has demonstrated to her "first hand that we need a better way of caring for and educating our children."
"The effects of trauma and chronic stress create an invisible burden for children that makes it very difficult for them to be healthy and live up to their academic potential," she wrote. "We must address these issues holistically in order to allow children to succeed."
In an interview with the Weekly on Thursday, Ravenswood Health Center CEO Luisa Buada described the new school model as "a program where health and education work hand in hand."
Ravenswood will provide health services particularly prenatal support and until children are 3 years old, at which point they will, ideally, enter The Primary School as preschoolers. School coaches will work with each family individually to create what Buada called a "health and education growth plan" for the child.
The private school, which is tuition-free, aims to support its students' growth and success primarily by empowering their parents and caretakers to become more connected, educated and involved, Buada said.
"That's focusing on what parents want the best for their children," Buada said of the plans. "So, 'I want my child to go to college someday; I would like my child to do well in school. How do I get there?' Working with families around the things that are challenges for them; helping parents so they can be empowered to do more with their kids giving them information, knowledge, resources and connection to other programs in the community that may be more than just a referral, more than just a phone number to call or more even than a warm hand-off but actually bringing organizations in to meet with parents."
Ravenswood's new partnership with Zuckerberg and Chan leverages the best of each partner's worlds the community connections of the Ravenswood Health Center, from which the school will recruit families, and the financial backing and educational knowledge that Chan and her team will bring.
Buada said pediatricians often become frustrated at the limitations they have in supporting young patients who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They see them frequently as newborns or if they're sick, and can point parents to resources or information, but often see children by age 3 falling behind developmentally and socially emotionally, Buada said. Pediatricians frequently feel that they're "losing the battle," she said.
"Most of these kids, they don't have developmental delays that are so severe that require special programs. These are delays associated with socialization and the environment that they're in and their access to knowledge and resources that other children and who have better incomes, frankly, (have)" she added.
The Primary School is set to open in August 2016 with the first class of preschoolers, providing full-time school for 4-year-olds and parent-based programming for infants and 2-year-olds, according to the website. The school will add a new grade each year. Preschool will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to support working parents, Buada said.
Curriculum will draw from the Common Core State Standards so if children leave The Primary School for the local public school district or elsewhere, their academic transition will be smooth, Buada said.
The Primary School team includes Meredith Liu, who has been working in K-12 urban education for more than a decade and most recently as chief financial officer at Match Education, a high-performing charter management organization and teacher-training program. Liu will serve as The Primary School's president and chief operating officer.
Andrew Elliott-Chandler, who has taught in east San Jose for the last decade, will serve as the school's principal. Most recently, he was the principal at Rocketship Education, a K-5 blended-learning public charter school in San Jose.
Family and Community Engagement Manager Nora Razon, a native of Mexico, grew up in East Palo Alto and also worked at local community organizations like College Track and the Renaissance Entrepreneur Center in East Palo Alto.
Zuckerberg and Chan are frequent investors in both local and national community organizations. In 2014, they donated $5 million to the Ravenswood Health Center, which reopened in a new multi-million dollar facility in March. (The health center, which serves close to 13,000 very low-income patients in family practice, pediatrics and reproductive health care, plans to double the number of clients it can handle by 2018.)
Zuckerberg also famously in 2010 donated $100 million to the struggling Newark, New Jersey, public school system with ambitious plans to transform the district within fie years plans that are widely viewed as falling flat.
The Primary School drew its model from other programs, both local and elsewhere, including Educare in San Jose, which provides full-day, year-round education focused on language and cognitive development, numeracy, the arts and problem-solving; whose students stay with the same teachers and peers for three years; and where "parent involvement is both expected and strongly supported, with a parent educator with a bachelor's degree for each 'neighborhood' of classrooms," according to the program's website.
Buada said other organizations have been collaborators in developing the new school, including the Ravenswood City School District; StarVista, a San Carlos nonprofit that provides mental health and other support services to youth and families; and San Mateo County Health Services Agency, among others. And there will be more, she said.
"At some point ... we have to address the issues in the wider community. We can't just sit in our programs and provide services," Buada said. "That's not working."
The announcement about the new East Palo Alto school also coincides with a community push to improve the local educational system. A group of East Palo Alto parents who have been organizing for more than a year are hosting with nonprofit Innovate Public Schools a "community action forum" on Monday, Oct. 26, to ask local elected officials to support the potential opening of a KIPP Public Charter School to serve East Palo Alto and Belle Haven families.
Speakers will include Lisa Yarbrough, mayor of East Palo Alto; Ruben Abrica, East Palo Alto city councilman; Joe Ross, San Mateo County Office of Education board member; Laura Martinez, Sequoia Union School Board member; April Chou, chief growth and operating officer, KIPP Bay Area Schools; and Anne Campbell, county superintendent of schools at the San Mateo County Office of Education.
The forum will begin at 7 p.m. at St. Francis de Assisi Church, 1425 Bay Road, East Palo Alto.