Inside Kanye West’s Mysterious New Private School Donda Academy – Rolling Stone
Kanye West’s latest ambitious venture may be his most surprising – and most mysterious.
Over the past decade, West has cemented himself not only as a musical force but also as a cultural and creative visionary, with the launch of his Yeezy line, major collaborations with Adidas and Gap, and tech projects like the Stem Player.
Now, he’s moving into education with Donda Academy, his own private school named after his late mother, Professor Donda West. Headquartered in Simi Valley, California, the tuition-based Christian prep school’s mission, according to its website, is to “prepare students to become the next generation of leaders” through “an ethic of integrity and care.” (West previously teased the idea of a school back in October 2020 under the name Yeezy Christian Academy.)
West returned to Instagram earlier this month to share photos of students decked out in school uniforms consisting entirely of his Yeezy and Gap designs. He also complained about his four children not attending the school, seemingly suggesting to his estranged wife Kim Kardashian that the kids should split their time between Donda and their current school.
But despite its celebrity founder, curiosity about the school, flashy visits from celebrities, and West’s plans to open up campuses across the country alongside a Donda University, the school has shared little information about its academics beyond what’s on its sparse website — an anomaly when compared to the area’s top private schools that detail their staff, classes, and other programs. The academy’s website merely notes that students’ daily schedule includes “full school worship; core classes of language arts, math, and science; lunch and recess; enrichment courses including World Language, Visual Art, Film, Choir, and Parkour.”
Two sources tell Rolling Stone that families are required to sign nondisclosure agreements; a consultant to the school claims only parents sign, and described it as an “informal agreement.”
What’s more, the school is not yet accredited and was still looking to hire instructors shortly before the school year began. Exactly who attends and works at the school has been tricky to pin down. Donda’s listed administrators and sporting program’s leadership did not respond to Rolling Stone’s multiple inquiries about the school. A representative for West also did not respond to requests for comment. Many of those associated with the school balked at interview requests, as did parents whose children attend the school. Even attempts by Simi Valley’s local newspaper noted in a June article that it could not reach anyone.
The ostensible head of the school listed on its website is principal and executive director Brianne Campbell, who also leads the school’s choir program. But Rolling Stone has learned that Campbell has never held a formal position as an educator. According to her résumé, Campbell’s closest brush with a teaching position appears to be running her own piano-, guitar-, and singing-tutoring business headquartered from her apartment. The 28-year-old only enrolled in a master’s degree program in education at Pepperdine University in January and should complete it by next August. (Campbell did not reply to an interview request.)
Malik Yusef, a producer and longtime collaborator of West’s who says he helped shape the school’s concept, tells Rolling Stone that West is serious about Donda Academy, and the school is by no means being done on a whim. It’s part of West’s longtime vision, with Yusef saying the rapper’s five-year plan is to have several campuses across the country.
“I want to be emphatic that there’s never been a time that Kanye West did not want to do this,” he says. “I think people don’t understand the gravity of that. This man always wanted to create a school in his mama’s name.… Look at what we’re doing with the choir and the fashion in school — I don’t think there’s a venture capitalist or anybody that’s had a vision this clear on what education can look like for you.”
With plans for nationwide schools and a college, Donda Academy will serve as the trial run if West and his team can pull off forming a successful celebrity-backed academic institution. Otherwise, they risk jeopardizing the education of the children entrusted in their care.
For the 2021-22 school year, Donda Academy launched its all-star Donda Doves basketball team alongside 21 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, according to the California Department of Education. In late August, the institution opened its doors to roughly 100 students, with proud parents posting images of their children heading off to class in their all-black uniforms.
Yusef described some of the students being children of West’s collaborators, creatives, and other celebrities, as Keyshia Cole posted a picture of her son in a Donda uniform and a popular family on YouTube also posted a picture of their child on the first day of school in uniform.
Elsewhere images circulated of the children gathered in an empty warehouse, eating a nutritious meal at foldout tables, and meeting Celtics player Jaylen Brown, who said three kids had given him their autographs. “[They] said they will be famous,” he wrote on Instagram after his visit. “I believe them.”
“I want to be emphatic that there’s never been a time that Kanye West did not want to do this. I think people don’t understand the gravity of that. This man always wanted to create a school in his mama’s name.”
On the surface, the opportunity to attend Donda Academy seems invaluable. In addition to smaller class sizes and apparent ample financial resources, athletes can receive pointers from NBA players like Brown and Utah Jazz star Jordan Clarkson. Aspiring musicians have a direct line to West and his industry connections and can join the school’s choir, which will participate in West’s Sunday Service. Children interested in fashion and other creative fields have the opportunity to learn at a school founded by a man with a boundless imagination.
But the lack of transparency about the inner workings of the school raises questions about what’s actually happening behind the scenes.
The air of secrecy is no accident, according to Yusef. “The process of Donda school is for the parishioners, for the attendees,” he says. “I don’t think Kanye needs to tell the world what he’s doing, so that he can be under more scrutiny.”
“People choose to bring their kids to Donda Academy for a sense of privacy,” he adds. “A sense of care, a sense of concern, a sense of love, an environment of health, and an environment of wealth, an environment of learning, and putting God as a focus.”
As noted, two sources close to current Donda students claim those associated with the school were asked to sign confidentiality agreements, while a third source said they were not permitted to discuss the school. (West is no stranger to doling out NDAs, reportedly making guests at his Sunday Services sign them, and his Yeezy brand is suing a former intern for allegedly breaching an NDA by posting confidential pictures on Instagram.)
Tamar Andrews, a consultant for Donda with two decades of experience in early-childhood-education programs, confirmed to Rolling Stone that parents were asked to sign an “informal agreement” when questioned whether families had to sign confidentiality agreements to enroll.
Andrews says that information about the school will be released in due time, but that doing so isn’t currently a high priority for the team. “Honestly, we don’t care if people know about the school,” she says. “The people that want to come to the school are looking for a good Christian school in that area and they know that we’re there … there is also a certain notoriety that comes with being affiliated with Donda. So, I don’t know that we have to advertise, which is a blessing and a curse.”
Andrews did share that the current enrollment was just under 100 students and 16 full-time teachers, with applications pouring in for the $15,000-per-year school. Around half the children have been awarded financial assistance or scholarships, largely backed by West’s personal network, she says.
The school is not yet accredited, Andrews confirmed, but has recently applied for accreditation with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the leading accreditation agency for all academic institutions in California. (The organization’s first visit to the school is scheduled for December, Rolling Stone confirmed with a WASC staff member. Andrews says the visit is in spring 2023. )
Accreditation is key in ensuring that graduating high schoolers’ credits and diplomas will be accepted by colleges, as some institutions may not recognize students’ credits or diplomas from unaccredited schools. Among the criteria to be accredited, WASC requires the school to have a chief administration officer who is qualified for the position, as well as qualified instructional staff.
It’s unclear exactly who else runs the school besides Campbell and two other administrators. Shayla Scott is named as its director of athletics, after holding a similar position at the Ellis School, an all-girls prep school in Pittsburgh. The school’s assistant principal is Allison Tidwell, who previously worked as an elementary-school teacher at Chicago Public Schools. (Andrews noted Campbell and Tidwell’s “raw talent,” and Andrews said she was brought on to help guide Campbell “the same way I guide[d] dozens of other schools through their infancy.” )
Two weeks before the school year began, Donda was still looking to hire staff members, as Andrews was searching on Facebook groups and LinkedIn for a lead transitional kindergarten teacher and an assistant, paying $55,000 to $75,000 and $27 to $30 per hour, respectively.
One person who worked with the school’s culinary team said they were involved in developing “elevated high-concept coffee, tea, and fruit-focused beverages for kids, parents, and faculty.” “Think like distilled chicory coffee shaved ice with milk syrup,” the person say. “We led a food science class for the students as well, where the kids can learn [the] fundamentals of cooking.”
There seemed to be some staff departures ahead of the current school year, most notably top Chicago educator and former principal Beulah McLoyd, who once met with former President Barack Obama regarding her work. McLoyd had been the school’s executive director, according to a private school affidavit filed to the California’s Department of Education.
However, when reached by Rolling Stone last week, McLoyd confirmed that she was no longer affiliated with the school. “She moved on,” Andrews said of McLoyd’s departure. “Sometimes there’s people that are not the perfect fit for every role.”
“We had philosophical differences about the level of stability that is required to educate students in an effective way,” McLoyd says in response. “As an educator with over 22 years of experience in the field, I always put children at the forefront of any decision I make. Consequently, I moved on.”
“The people that want to come to the school are looking for a good Christian school in that area and they know that we’re there … there is also a certain notoriety that comes with being affiliated with Donda.
While West’s name is a calling card for the school, Andrews and Yusef spoke of its unique programs for students, such as fashion courses, Japanese, restorative-justice instruction, and STEM classes.
Not only is West the driving force behind Donda Academy and involved with the basketball team, Yusef says the school was conceptualized around aspects of West’s own upbringing and what he had learned from his late mother. “With Donda Academy, the curriculum has been built his whole life,” he explains. “Education is kind of a group effort. It takes a village to raise the child. At length, we spoke about how we want to have people educated and how the education system fails the majority of people, not just some people.”
And while some on social media mocked the school’s offering of parkour or freerunning, Yusef says it’s an embodiment of what Donda stands for. “Kanye’s whole ideology is about freedom, and freerunning is a great way for kids to exercise and exert themselves and use their energy without feeling competitive,” he says. “We don’t necessarily want to force kids to be as competitive; we want them to experience their own self-efficacy and then gauge from there who they are.”
Currently, one of the major draws of the school is its choir program, which appears to play some role in West’s invite-only Sunday Services. The school held auditions for the choir over the spring and applicants knew the results of their audition by June, as two sources familiar with the auditioning process told Rolling Stone that Donda ended up accepting up to seven children from a local youth-enrichment program.
Both sources described the opportunity to Rolling Stone as life-changing for the students, not only for the exposure to real-world experiences with a working choir founded by West but also for helping to provide them with a private education, which a majority of the students otherwise could not afford.
Donda’s other calling card is its Adidas-backed Donda Doves basketball team, which has successfully recruited some of the nation’s top high school players, including ESPN’s No. 8 pick Robert Dillingham and No. 25 selection AJ Johnson. (The team got front-page coverage from Slam Magazine in January. Decked out in light gray Balenciaga-produced uniforms, the teenagers posed around West, who stood solemnly in the center.)
Due to the players hailing from across the country (several from North Carolina), the program put them up in a luxury apartment building with chaperones. The piece skimmed over the teens’ education, only noting the program was “powered” by K12 Private Academy, an online curriculum that had been approved by the NCAA. (Andrews said the school was no longer using the online curriculum.)
It’s believed that West hopes to transform his fledgling team into a fitting opponent of nearby top team Sierra Canyon, where LeBron James’ 17-year-old son Bronny plays. West’s children also attend the school.
“[My hope for graduates is] to have a sense of purpose on the planet Earth and have the tools to execute that purpose and the wherewithal to amass the team necessary to execute their purpose.”
West is far from the lone celebrity to open their own private school. Some others haven’t fared very well, such as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s New Village Leadership Academy, which opened in 2008 and closed five years later. And Deion Sanders’ Dallas-based Prime Prep Academy serves as a cautionary tale for celeb-backed schools that hinge on their athletic program. After recruiting top high school football and basketball players, the school faced scandals and financial issues and shuttered in 2015. Some students who were expecting to play at the college level were suddenly told they weren’t eligible to play over the school’s serious academic issues.
“It’s kind of a ‘buyer beware’ market dynamic,” Professor Bruce Fuller of the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Education tells Rolling Stone about enrolling students in private and charter schools. That makes it imperative for parents to do their research and ask several questions of the administration.
In addition to asking if the school plans on giving its students bench-level exams to test how their students perform against statewide and grade level norms, University of Southern California’s Dean of Education Pedro A. Noguera says there should be questions about its curriculum and plans for students after graduating.
“l would want to know how they go about selecting teachers … and what are the programs,” Noguera explains. Down the line, as Donda Academy students graduate, where they end up at college should be examined. “That tells you something [about] the competitiveness and quality of the school,” he says.
But Yusef and Andrews are confident that Donda Academy will be a success and help create the next generation of leaders, creators, and well-rounded students. “[My hope for graduates is] to have a sense of purpose on the planet Earth and have the tools to execute that purpose and the wherewithal to amass the team necessary to execute their purpose,” Yusef says. “To leave a beauty mark on the face of the Earth.”