Former At-Risk Kids Thrive at LeBron James' I Promise School

90 percent of the students have met or exceeded their goals in reading and math.

May 3, 2019

All of the students attending I Promise School have one thing in common - they were all previously considered the worst performers in the Akron, Ohio public schools and all had behavioral issues and were labeled at-risk kids. But that is not the case anymore.

The 240 third and fourth-grade kids in this special public-school program have really turned it all around. Ninety percent of the students met or exceeded the individual goals that were set for them in reading and math and the test scores on the Measures of Academic Progress Assessment test increased at a higher rate than those of 99 out of 100 schools nationally, according to the New York Times.

The students at the school were chosen by a lottery and are called the "Chosen Ones," just like the headline of LeBron's first Sports Illustrated cover when he was only a junior in high school. 

“These kids are doing an unbelievable job, better than we all expected,” James told the Times. “When we first started, people knew I was opening a school for kids. Now people are going to really understand the lack of education they had before they came to our school. People are going to finally understand what goes on behind our doors.”

One of the big differences between this school and other schools opened by celebrities is that I Promise is not a charter school or a private school; it is a public school operated by the Akron school district. The schools $2 million budget is the same per student as the district's other schools but the LeBron James Family Foundation has provided $600,000 in support that is used to pay for extra teachers to reduce class sizes, an additional hour of after-school programs, and tutors.

This nontraditional school is built on what it calls “Habits of Promise” — perseverance, perpetual learning, problem-solving, partnering, and perspective — that every student must commit to. This corresponds with James' personal "Be Best" philosophy. The school's slogan "We are Family" is everywhere, on the walls of the school and the t-shirts the children wear.

And, this commitment extends to the children's families too. The school takes a whole family approach and provides parents with a free food pantry, G.E.D. preparation, work advice, and a counseling center that provides health and legal resources. This is what Dr. Michele Campbell; the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation calls I Promises' "secret sauce" in the recipe for success.

Nickole Wyatt, a single mother, whose son Ti’Jay is in the fourth grade told the Times that she never felt supported anywhere else. “It took me coming here to realize what family even is,” she said. Wyatt is now studying to take the G.E.D high school equivalency exam.

While James is considered the best basketball player ever, many doubted that his school that opened in July 2018 could succeed. “These were the children where you went and talked with their old teachers, and they said, ‘This will never work,’” Campbell told the Times. “We said give them to us.”

The school is the natural extension of the work the foundation does for students in the third through 10th grades in the district with mentoring, college and career prep and other resources to the tune of $2.6 million this school year. All of the students in the program who meet the academic criteria, receive a full college scholarship to the University of Akron.

James grew up in Akron and went to public schools in the community. He was also an at-risk kid raised by a single mother and missed more than 16 weeks of school when he was in the fourth grade. He started the foundation to help kids and families like the one he grew up in by providing a path to a college education and opened the I Promise school because he wanted to give something back to the community.

Vikki McGee, who runs the school’s family resource center, told the Times that the center’s existence conveyed that the school was about something much bigger than a basketball star: “This is about fighting for generations.”

But James' presence is very much seen and felt in the school. He is seen in murals that decorate the walls, on the wallpaper and in video messages he sends the kids. There are 114 shoes in the school's lobby, including the pair he wore in 2016 when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the N.B.A. championship to remind the students that he once walked the same path as them.

“One time, LeBron wrote us a letter, and I knew it was real because I saw the paper was signed in pen,” Vikyah Powe, a fourth grader told the Times. “That encouraged me.”

The school is a very promising start for kids that were considered irredeemable. “We are reigniting dreams that were extinguished — already in third and fourth grade,” Brandi Davis, the school’s principal told the Times. “We want to change the face of urban education.”

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.

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