In 2010, Zuckerberg and Chan embarked on their first major education project, donating $100 million to turn around public schools in Newark, N.J. But the work was characterized as a failure, a top-down education reform effort with large chunks of the money going to labor and contract costs, charter schools and consultants.
While Chan and Zuckerberg have acknowledged that trying to improve New Jersey's schools came with challenges, they've also said it produced higher graduation rates and taught them the importance of working with the community.
The path from child to adult is a long and winding road, and Chan knows she can't do the work alone. There's no antibiotic, no medicine the doctor can prescribe to cure domestic violence or other issues a kid may encounter at home. The Primary School's team, she said, spent a year learning about the surrounding community.
At a recent community roundtable that included U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr., the conversation between The Primary School and community members continued. Chan heard from school leaders in the area concerned about the gaps in special education funding, parents frustrated by disorders such as depression and autism, and a student who yearned for more engaging classes.
East Palo Alto, a disadvantaged, racially diverse city of about 29,000 people, stands out among the wealthy and educated tech enclaves of Silicon Valley. Only a small percentage of students go on to earn a bachelor's degree, and 16.6 percent of the city's residents are living in poverty. Much like the low-income housing units that Chan worked in during college, the city has a history of gang violence and in 1992 had the nation's highest murder rate. Since then, East Palo Alto has become safer, with violent crimes dropping 64 percent from 2013 to 2014, a federal crime report shows.
Inspired by working with kids in the after-school program and as a pediatrician, Chan started quietly working on The Primary School while she was a resident at the University of California at San Francisco. As part of the Pediatric Leadership for the Underserved program, residents had to complete a project, but Chan had her sights on a task that was far more ambitious, opening a new school.
"It was incredible what she pulled off. Being a resident and working that sort of arduous schedule is taxing in and of itself," said Dr. Meg McNamara, a mentor in the program who worked with Chan. McNamara said Chan has a knack for seeing the big picture but keeping an eye on the details, understanding the larger impact of a child's life outside of the doctor's office.
In an office space already filled with bursts of bright colors, The Primary School's logo, a hand with a heart in its palm, jumps out. Incorporated into the logo are images that represent the school's five values: excellence, growth, courage, community and soul.
Chan, who gave birth to her first child, a daughter, in late 2015, knows education reform can't wait.
"Before I had Max, I had all these experiences that gave me what I felt like was a strong empathy for how important it is for children to have all these opportunities and how much families want to invest and want the best for their kids," Chan said. "But after I had Max, I feel that every day."
___ PRISCILLA CHAN Feb. 24, 1985: Born in Braintree, Mass. 1999-2003: Attended Quincy High School, graduated in 2003 as class valedictorian 2003-07: Attended Harvard University, graduated with a bachelor's in biology August 2007-June 2008: Worked as a science teacher for fourth- and fifth-graders at The Harker School in San Jose, Calif. 2008-12: Attended medical school at the University of California at San Francisco, graduated in May 2012 2008-12: Medical residency at UCSF Children's Hospital Nov. 26, 2009: With partner Mark Zuckerberg, committed $5 million to UCSF Children's Hospital September 2010: Co-founded Startup:Education with a $100 million commitment to improve schools in Newark, N.J. May 19, 2012: Married Zuckerberg Dec. 12, 2012: Couple committed 18 million Facebook shares to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation May 29, 2014: Couple committed $120 million to improve schools in the Bay Area Feb. 6, 2015: Couple donated $75 million to the San Francisco General Hospital. The name of the hospital was later changed to the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. June 30, 2015: Completed medical residency at San Francisco General Hospital Oct. 22, 2015: Announced The Primary School Nov. 2015: Gave birth to daughter Max Dec. 1, 2015: Couple pledged to give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative