Pharrell Williams' New School Offers a 'Room Without a Roof' to Low-Income Students

Jun 11, 2021 12:00:00 AM

by Andre Benito Mountain

When you visit the Team Yellow website, a powerful statement appears: 

We will even the odds through education. 

The site, the movement, and the concept are the brainchild of Norfolk, Virginia’s native son, Pharrell Williams. His Team Yellow is opening a private school for third through fifth graders this fall called Yellowhab. The new school will aim to “put youth at the center and surround them with the support they need, preparing them with skills and mindsets to help them thrive.” Yellowhab will also empower the community to “support, surround and uplift children” as they learn.

Like many cities around the nation, Norfolk is undergoing a redevelopment that will displace many families who depend upon public housing communities. This is a noble effort from Pharrell’s Yellow Foundation that has the potential to transform a community in flux much like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone did as Harlem was undergoing similar revitalization and the displacement of many of the community’s African American families. 

With his roots firmly planted in Hip-Hop, [pullquote]Pharrell’s move to open the school speaks to the Hip-Hop community’s longstanding commitment to educate the youth, create opportunities for our communities, and bring attention to issues that affect the urban poor.[/pullquote] Like the lyrics of his hit “Happy,” he is offering students access to a ‘room without a roof’ where creativity is celebrated, and students are grouped based on their needs—not by the traditional age constraints. 

The school will begin with a modest enrollment of 40 to 50 students who will be admitted based on a lottery selection. The private and independent school will be free to those who attend. 

The Grind

Pharrell’s work in communities is not a new venture. Along with his mother, Dr. Carolyn Williams, Pharrell has been working to support youth for years. Starting with a school supply giveaway in his hometown, he eventually began to sponsor innovative summer camps with a STEAMM focus  (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics and Motivation). His passion has always been on helping under-served, at-risk youth. Yellowhab is a natural progression of his ongoing work to reach back into communities that need it the most. 


Public school educators have sometimes held contentious regard for charter and private schools as part of the ongoing assault on public education. As the principal of a public choice school that admits students using a lottery system, and having a daughter in an innovative public charter school, [pullquote position="right"]I believe that offering options like Yellowhab to communities is important.[/pullquote]

Last year, in speaking with a group of educators, I shared a trait of sunflowers that helps them to survive in the midst of other plants. Sunflowers are allelopathic, which means their roots release a chemical in the soil that prevents the growth of other types of plants near it. The emergence of private schools, choice schools, and charter schools shouldn’t have an allelopathic effect upon the operation of public schools attended by large segments of a community’s children. 

[pullquote]Charter and private schools should not supplant innovation in the traditional public-school sector, but rather encourage it.[/pullquote]

Pharrell’s Yellowhab is a life raft for a small group of students in this community, but the question remains as to what the local school district will do to ensure a high-quality education for the remaining students who are not able to gain admission to this school. Innovative private and charter schools must not absolve public schools of their responsibilities to provide educational environments that foster creativity and provide the differentiation and wellness activities Yellowhab will offer. 

So Ambitious

I’m hopeful that Yellowhab can be a spark for the Norfolk community, and for public education at large, to rethink our approach to schooling. Let’s partner with private and charter schools for the betterment of our communities, resisting the urge to devalue our public schools, public school teachers and public school scholars. 

On the Team Yellow site, Pharrell writes that yellow is the color of the sun, the color of illumination, and the color of knowledge. He also reminds us that yellow is the color of caution. My hope is that Yellowhab illuminates the path forward for children and those who teach children in our urban communities.

Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area and founder of  Def-Education Consulting LLC. He is the author of “Principals Don’t Walk on Water” (2020),  “The Mountain Principles” (2018), and The Brilliance Beneath (2016). His most recent book is “Virtually Lost: Essays on Education in a Global Pandemic” (2021). Andre is the host of the DEF-Education podcast on Spotify. He is also the publisher of DEF-ED Magazine, a magazine that highlights the work of educators, artists, and activists in urban settings and their innovations to improve the schooling experiences of youth. Andre began his educational career as a classroom teacher in Macon, Georgia. He later served as a K-12 Curriculum Coordinator in Augusta, Georgia, and an Assistant Principal in Tacoma, Washington. He has been featured on the cover of TEACH Magazine and Washington Principal Magazine. He holds a bachelor's in history from Georgia Southern University, a master's in early childhood education from Wesleyan College, an Ed.S. from Augusta University, and is currently a doctoral student at Georgia Southern University.

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