Dr. Priscilla Chan, wife of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has been in talks with city and school officials to open a charter or alternative public school in San Francisco for nearly a year, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.
The school, modeled after a private school Chan and her husband opened in East Palo Alto last year called The Primary School, would focus on the health and education of at-risk children from before birth through eighth grade and their parents.
The school would be the first expansion of The Primary School and mark yet another endeavor into The City for the couple, who donated $75 million to the newly renamed Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center in 2015.
“The goal of The Primary School has always been to create a holistic system of care for children that can be replicated across the Bay Area and nationally,” a spokesperson for The Primary School said. “We’re excited The Primary School model is being considered by the San Francisco Unified School District.”
Through a public records request, the Examiner obtained emails between The Primary School, city and school officials that detail months of discussion about the project that continued into February.
Chan first inquired about opening a charter school in The City last June. The conversation has since turned into whether to open the school as a charter or Small School by Design.
Charters offer more flexibility for hiring staff than small schools, which are still governed by school district policy, have low-student enrollment and are focused on student equity.
But charters, which have more independence, are not as well received in San Francisco unless they serve particular populations like inmates at County Jail or juvenile offenders.
“We are at a cross-roads and would like to explore the options of [The Primary School] becoming a Small School by Design within the SFUSD structure, or applying for a jointly designed public charter,” Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell, Mayor Ed Lee’s education advisor, wrote in an email Feb. 2.
Mendoza-McDonnell, who is also vice president of the Board of Education, is supportive of the project and has been leading the conversations since June 2016. At the time, she and then-Superintendent Richard Carranza hoped to have board approval for the school to open as a charter by March 2017.
“There is also a question about whether you need to be a charter next fall or if we should start with an MOU and convert it into a charter in a couple of years when we actually have students old enough to begin the infant/toddler classroom,” she wrote in June.
There was a lull in discussions about The Primary School after Carranza left in September. His permanent replacement, Vincent Matthews, will take the reins next month.
The Primary School is meant to help those most likely to fall through the cracks of traditional public school, including recent immigrants, homeless families and teen mothers. Costs for running the school would be split between public funding and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative — the couple’s philanthropic effort.
“We’re interested in any approach that might ensure better outcomes for San Francisco’s highest need families and children,” Interim Superintendent Myong Leigh said in an email through a spokesperson.
“The Primary School model offers something that we aren’t currently doing: starting with when a child is born and providing consistent coordinated services to parents and their children over more than a decade,” he added. “But this is all just exploratory at this time, we haven’t yet gotten into the details with regards to oversight, staffing, finances and location.”
Meredith Liu, president and COO of The Primary School, said in an Aug. 21 email that they want the school “to be within walking distance of SFGH but could also look at Bayview/Hunter’s Point or other areas of the city with a concentration of high-need families.”
The project could have the potential to compete for space with other priorities the school district has, like building new schools in the Bayview to meet the demand of the development boom or the construction of teacher housing, which both rely on the availability of city- and district-owned property.
In an Aug. 23 email, Mendoza-McDonnell said the school will likely need its own campus.
“This sounds like a stand-alone space and not a shared space,” Mendoza-McDonnell wrote, adding that she wanted to have further conversation with “The City’s real estate folks and Office of Economic and Workforce Development for city and private property considerations.”
The following month, Mendoza-McDonnell said in a Sept. 12 email there were a range of potential sites for the school from “sharing a space at Malcolm X Academy in the Bayview,” which is an under-enrolled school, “to a stand-alone site in the Mission just blocks from” SFGH.
School board President Shamann Walton said in an interview Monday he is excited about the potential partnership but would prefer to see it benefit children in the Bayview as a small school rather than a charter.
“I would love for them to infuse their pediatric practices into one of our schools in the southeast sector,” Walton said. “I don’t want to take resources away from the traditional system.”