Research and Internships: Juliana Parker ’21: Exploring a Career in Special Education at the Primary School

Juliana Parker ’21, far right, with her fellow educators at the Primary School in East Palo Alto, California

Juliana Parker ’21 knows her way around a classroom. From August to May, Parker studies psychology at Scripps, with a special interest in child development. During the summer months, she interns at the Primary School, a nonprofit startup that integrates health and education services for underserved children in East Palo Alto.

The Primary School is funded by Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg. Chan and Zuckerburg launched the project to help alleviate the effects of poverty on children. The approach focuses on starting integrative care from an early age—for some families, that means even before the child is born.

“The Primary School is radical because parents, teachers, and medical staff are involved from the very beginning,” says Parker. “The teacher might notice a behavioral issue, but it may actually stem from something medical, so that’s where the doctor comes in. The constant support and communication is what differentiates the Primary School from the typical educational experience.” Juliana Parker '21

Parker has been with the Primary School since its founding in 2016. She heard about the school through Zuckerberg, who was teaching an entrepreneurship class at her high school and soon became her mentor. Now, Parker views Zuckerberg and Chan not only as mentors, but also as friends.

“I go to Priscilla when I have problems and she gives me academic and life advice,” says Parker.

At the beginning of her work with the Primary School, Parker helped bring the founders’ vision to life by helping to design and build new classrooms, which included constructing furniture and displaying engaging materials. After interning there for the past two summers, she now works as a childcare provider and aids preschool-aged kids who have speech and/or behavioral needs through the Bridge to Preschool Program, which is designed to introduce young children to the nature of the classroom. Parker assists kids with social skills, teaches them how to sit and listen to the teacher, and guides them through lessons that they might miss in a traditional classroom setting.

For Parker, small changes in behavior are the most rewarding to see. “One day I was able to get a kid who doesn’t usually participate in snack time to sit at the table and eat. Those are the kinds of things that make the biggest impact.”

Her experience assisting kids of various abilities and backgrounds has led Parker to consider a career as a special education teacher, a role in which she plans to continue advocating for an integrative approach to education.

“I can relate as a kid with mental illness,” says Parker. “I went through really hard times when I was younger, but my teacher only knew the academic part of me—which was a really good student—and my doctor only knew the medical part of me—I seemed healthy—but my parents knew other things were going on. With more communication between them, I could have excelled so much more inside and outside the classroom.”

Upon returning to Scripps in the fall, Parker will bring her insight about child development and behavior to her psychology courses.

“I want to teach others that there is a lot of stigma with kids with ‘special needs,'” she says. “I want to break down that stigma and raise awareness about the importance of noticing behaviors from a young age.”