When the doors open in August to her private school for poor children in East Palo Alto, Calif., Priscilla Chan will have a ready-made laboratory to test the best ways to combat the effects of poverty on young minds.
Chan and her husband, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, are funding the Primary School to educate low-income children from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade while also providing comprehensive health care to students and their families, all free of charge.
The school will start with about 40 pre-school students in the first year, gradually adding grades until it is fully built with a capacity of about 700 children and their families.
Chan, a pediatrician who works with low-income patients at San Francisco General Hospital, created the Primary School as a new model, according to her writings on Facebook and the new school’s website.
While the idea of adding “wraparound services” — health and dental care, mental health services — to schools that serve low-income students has gained currency in recent years, health care and other services are being woven into the initial design for the Primary School, not added as an afterthought.
“Many children face challenges that put them far behind before they get to school —challenges like poverty, neglect, family instability, and poor environmental conditions,” according to the school’s website. “These traumatic childhood events alter the body’s ability to maintain health and promote optimal brain development. Research shows that nearly one in five children is at significant risk for poor health and educational outcomes due to these adverse childhood experiences.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” the website says. “By integrating education and health services, we can meet the full needs of children and their families — and make sure they have support to thrive.”
The school’s partner is the Ravenswood Family Health Center, a federally funded clinic nearby that will provide medical, dental and mental health services.
The Primary School will open at a time when a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families and the academic achievement gap between poor and more-affluent children is growing. Policymakers are increasingly concerned about ways to reduce the gap, which is apparent as early as kindergarten.
Zuckerberg and Chan, who announced on Tuesday that they intend to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to charitable causes, have not disclosed how much they will spend on the school.
Zuckerberg, 31, and Chan, 30, became parents for the first time shortly before Thanksgiving, when she gave birth to a baby girl. A spokesman said they were unavailable for comment.
They took a very deliberate approach to creating the Primary School, talking with community leaders in Oakland, San Francisco and East Palo Alto before refining their idea.
That contrasts with Zuckerberg’s first foray into educational philanthropy in 2010, when he gave $100 million to the Newark Public Schools with the hope it could serve as a national model for urban school improvement. Critics of the effort, which yielded mixed results, complained that wholesale changes were made to public schools by outsiders without input from the community.
Asked about Newark during an appearance last year on the “Today” show, Chan said: “We’ve seen and learned how important it is to listen to the community and get a sense of what they need and want.”
Chan grew up in Quincy, Mass., the oldest daughter of Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants. Her mother worked two jobs, and Chan served as the family translator. She has frequently credited public school teachers for encouraging her academic ambitions and setting her on a path to Harvard, where she met Zuckerberg.
While in college, Chan volunteered at an afterschool program for low-income children in Boston. After graduation, she worked as an elementary school science teacher in California before attending medical school.
“My experiences of running an after school program in a low-income housing project and working as a pediatrician in a safety net hospital has shown me first hand that we need a better way of caring for and educating our children,” Chan wrote on her Facebook page. “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. We must address these issues holistically in order to allow children to succeed.”
A growing body of neuroscience research, made possible by technological advances in magnetic resonance imaging, suggests that poverty affects brain structure in children and teenagers.
One provocative study published earlier this year found that children growing up in the poorest households have smaller cerebral cortices — the outer layer of the brain that controls the most sophisticated cognitive functions — than those who live in affluence.
But other studies have shown that the cortex can grow as a result of experience and stimulation, fueling a national discussion about the need for quality pre-school for low-income children.
At the Primary School, services will begin even earlier. The school plans to offer prenatal programs, and its website says it will seek to enroll children before birth.