Inside Mark Zuckerberg's new school: Private, but free

Mark Zuckerberg has poured over $1 billion into education. What's behind 'The Primary School,' which will provide free education and healthcare to all students?

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu/File
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015

Can the Harvard-educated founder of Facebook reinvent public education?

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to transform the public school system in Newark, NJ, but he was stymied by laws preventing significant changes to teacher contracts.

But Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are still hoping to make inroads into educational inequity. They are creating "The Primary School," which will provide both free education and free healthcare for low-income students in the Palo Alto area.

"Health and education are closely connected," wrote Zuckerberg in a Facebook post about the school. "When children aren't healthy, they can't learn as easily. Many kids and teachers across the country deal with the consequences of poor health in classrooms every day."

He added, "In addition to early childhood and K-12 education, The Primary School will also provide prenatal support for families and on-site healthcare for children. By bringing healthcare and education together in one place, the goal is to support families and help children from underserved communities reach their full potential."

The school is not a charter school, according to its website, but is "a private, non-profit school" that will partner with the Ravenswood Family Health Center, a nearby health clinic, to provide free healthcare services for students and their families.

When The Primary School opens in August 2016, it will offer parent-and-child classes for babies and toddlers and full-day pre-K classes for 3- and 4-year-olds. The school plans to add a grade level each year, slowly growing into a birth through 12th grade free, private school.     

Dr. Chan, who is the CEO of The Primary School as well as a practicing pediatrician, was first inspired to ameliorate the challenges of poverty while she was an undergraduate at Harvard, where she tutored children in inner-city Boston. She has also taught 4th and 5th grade science.

"After the first year," she told The San Jose Mercury News, "it became evident I could do all I wanted, but there were much bigger problems that were preventing these kids from succeeding in school."

Funding for The Primary School will come from the foundation that Zuckerberg and Chan co-founded, Startup:Education, which chiefly provides grants to underserved schools and communities in the Bay Area. The foundation has given away more than $1 billion in grants and other gifts for education since 2010.   

Chan did not tell the Mercury News how much she and her husband are contributing to The Primary School, but when it is fully built, it will serve 50 students in 14 grades (pre-K through 12) plus the families of their 700 students.

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