What Makes LeBron’s School So Special? We’ve Broken it Down For You.

Last week, basketball legend LeBron James opened a public school specially designed for “children in Akron who need it most.” Nearly ten years in the making, the I Promise school now proudly serves 240 at-risk third and fourth graders, with plans to expand each year to eventually span from first grade through eighth grade by 2022.

The school, a collaborative project by the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools, is a testament to James’ undying commitment to serving his community, his hometown and the children of the future, and serves as a way to remember his own roots, too.

Life Before “The King”

An Akron native himself, James knows personally what it is like to struggle through public school. He often tells the story of “the year that changed his life.” Surprisingly, that year was 1993. James was in the fourth grade, and missed 83 days of school due to unstable housing and precarious family structures. He might have fallen further behind if not for Bruce Kelker, a community youth football coach, who took James in and got him back on track.

From there, James lived with the Walkers, an experience he’d later call his first time with “a real family.” It was the Walkers who first introduced basketball into James’ life, and of course, the rest is history. The Walkers also enrolled James at Portage Path Elementary, one of the oldest (and poorest) schools in Akron. Roughly 90 percent of students qualified for free lunches. Although the building was aging and the funding was seriously lacking, the school had begun to experiment with “holistic learning,” which partly involved students taking classes in music, art and physical education.

The “I Promise” Model

Portage Path Elementary certainly served as an inspiration for James. It was the square one of his dream for a one-of-a-kind progressive educational institution. It inspired ideas of change, of improvement, of increased opportunity. In his speech at the I Promise school’s opening ceremony, James said, “I want people to know that these kids should still have the same opportunity as everybody else. That’s what’s most important. Us as adults, we have a responsibility to not let these kids down, to continue to be the teachers, the mentors, the parents, the coaching, the life skills, the superheroes… whatever it is that gives the inspiration, everything, that’s our responsibility. These kids are our future and they have dreams and aspirations bigger than the city of Akron, than the state of Ohio, than the USA.”

The model of the I Promise school depends on both adults and children promising to work hard and show up for themselves and each other, in order to find success. James developed the “I Promise” pledge, which serves as a kind of manifesto for the school.

I Promise…

to go to school.

to do all of my homework. 

to listen to my teachers because they will help me learn.

to ask questions and find answers. 

to never give up, no matter what.

to always try my best.

to be helpful and respectful to others.

to live a healthy life by eating right and being active.

to make good choices for myself.

to have fun.

and above all else, to finish school!

“We are going to be that groundbreaking school that will be a nationally recognized model for urban and public school excellence,” I Promise principal and Akron native Brandi Davis told USA Today. “We are letting people know it is about true wrap-around support, true family integration, and true compassion.”

A Promising Curriculum

Crafted with the assistance of Akron County educators, the I Promise curriculum is focused on a hands-on STEM education that emphasizes developing problem-solving skills.

Mornings will start later, but will run longer than most school days. The 9 to 5 school time is to promote more time in school and healthy environments, because as James notes, for many kids who grow up in poverty, exposure to violence and dangerous habits is looming everywhere outside. The school year also promotes year-round learning and will take small staggered breaks throughout the year instead of a four month summer hiatus. This is to decrease the incidence of “summer learning loss.”

Another “holistic” facet of the I Promise curriculum is the “illumination period” – an hour of each day dedicated to leading children through therapeutic and enriching activities in the hopes of teaching them how to cope with trauma.

“We Are Family”

Because the I Promise school is public, it is free to attend and available to any student in need. But that’s not all: every child receives a free bicycle and helmet; free breakfast, lunch, and snacks; free uniforms; and above all, James has guaranteed that every student who graduates from his school will receive free college tuition at the University of Akron, starting in 2021.

Integrating the entire family into the school’s mission is paramount to James, and research backs up that children are more likely to achieve success if they see success and hard work modeled by their guardians. So, James has created a program for parents of the at-risk students to return to complete their high school educations and take the GED. The school also provides unemployed parents with the proper resources for finding a job.

Lastly, James takes care of his teachers and staff—the people with their boots on the ground, making the learning magic happen day by day. Unlike most teachers who have to pay for their own classroom supplies, the I Promise instructors are provided with all the supplies they need. James knows that teaching is a tireless and sometimes exhausting profession, and so to keep his staff at optimal health, every teacher is given access to free psychological services, as well as a personal trainer!

With such a level of inclusion and generosity built into the school’s infrastructure, it’s no wonder that the I Promise motto is We Are Family. “We want every kid to walk through this school to be inspired, to come … away with something. Something where they can give back,” LeBron James said. “For kids in general, all they want to know is that someone cares. And when they walk through that door, I hope they know that someone cares.”

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