Headlines touting the Next Big Idea in education have become so common in recent years that it’s tempting to dismiss every new K-12 initiative as a fad or fantasy doomed to either flatline or fail. A skeptical observer might be inclined to sweep LeBron James’s I Promise School into that pile. But teachers and executives who’ve worked closely with James on this endeavor insist that he won’t let that happen. The professional basketball player and Akron, Ohio, native, they say, really wants to rethink how public education should be delivered—not only in Akron, but across the country.
And his vision is already having a tangible impact: Last week, the Democratic U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Chris Van Hollen, of Ohio and Maryland respectively, introduced a bill that would set aside $45 million for federal competitive grants to fund partnerships between schools and their communities. The idea, Senator Brown indicated in a tweet, is to replicate the I Promise model in places that don’t have “a LeBron James.”
What makes I Promise unique, its creators and outside experts say, is that it combines various features that are seldom seen in a single school—and that it is poised to potentially spur similar education-reform efforts across the country. The Atlantic has obtained I Promise's “master plan” document—its blueprint for the next five years, which was approved last fall by Akron’s school board. The document can be found in full at the end of this article. While the plan leaves some questions unanswered—about the details of the curriculum, for example—it reveals much about the school's philosophy and unorthodox approach. Here are some of the things that make I Promise unique:
1. It’s a public school.
Unlike many other celebrities and magnates who’ve turned to education philanthropy—James created a school that would belong to the district, rather than a private school or a charter school. James’s school is housed under his I Promise nonprofit, which he created in 2011 as part of an effort to shift his now-14-year-old foundation’s focus toward education. From the get-go, I Promise sought to tackle the high-school dropout rate in Akron Public Schools. It made a lot of progress in that effort over the years: In 2015, for example, it started funding full-tuition, four-year scholarships to the University of Akron for eligible students in the I Promise program. Still, fewer than three in four public-school students in Akron—where about a quarter of the city’s population lives below the poverty level—graduate high school within four years.
The I Promise school was designed to target the Akron Public Schools students who struggle despite the existing supports provided by the nonprofit. It started its first year of classes on July 30, welcoming onto campus 240 students in the third and fourth grades, and will grow gradually over the years, eventually serving children in grades one through eight by 2022.
It would have been challenging for James to target this population through a charter or private school. While those models may have, in theory, allowed for more experimentation, such innovation would happen in isolation and would be difficult to extend into the city’s other public schools. It could alienate the local teachers’ union and district administrators and, potentially, families without the savvy to take advantage of public-school alternatives. Pulling away from Akron Public Schools would have also made it difficult to create a pipeline into I Promise for the at-risk students he sought to target.
James and his nonprofit team started developing the master plan in April 2017. By October, they’d finalized the first draft of the proposal and presented it to the school board for consideration. The proposal details five teams tasked with designing different components of the school—including its “instructional framework,” its human resources, and its community-engagement efforts—each of which was co-chaired by an Akron Public Schools staff member. The board formally approved the plan a month later.
“LeBron grew up as a public-school kid,” says Michelle Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, which partnered with Akron Public Schools in creating the I Promise School. “And the reality is that, in a lot of our urban cities, the vast majority of kids are going to go to public schools.” Making I Promise a part of the public-school system, she believes, “is what helps make what we're doing scalable and provide a learning laboratory for the rest of the country.”
2. It has huge ambitions.
Akron Public Schools states on its website that it wants to be the "#1 urban school system in the United States." I Promise is on a mission to help make that happen, and has an explicit goal of improving the well-being of residents across Akron—not just its students. “Classroom instruction and assignments are grounded in the health and prosperity of the City of Akron and local efforts to build inclusive, healthy, and socially just neighborhoods for all its citizens and families in an increasingly global and multicultural world,” the master plan says. To do so, it’s implementing a suite of supports that are rare at conventional public schools: attendance incentives, outings to local businesses, mentorship programs, after-school tutoring, and constant encouragement from James through things like video messages and written notes.
“I remember when we had a year-end meeting” to discuss the I Promise foundation's work, Campbell says. “It was that meeting where I said, ‘We’ve grown quickly, and we're doing amazing things, but we have hit a wall if we don’t bring them all to one school.’ ... I can't even explain [James’s reaction]—he was like: ‘Well, then, that’s what we’re doing.’”
3. It wants to be involved in every aspect of a student's life—not just academics.
The master plan says I Promise will focus on “rigorous problem-based, inquiry-oriented learning,” especially pertaining to STEM. But the plan also emphasizes “social emotional supports and trauma-informed practices.” Prioritizing both of these elements, the plan says, will allow the school to “educate the whole child.”
In plain English, what that means is that the school wants to ground its curriculum in real-world issues. As I Promise sees it, math instruction should entail more than worksheets that drill students on long division; science class shouldn’t just mean memorizing different types of rocks. Instead, the school wants to have students learn those subjects by engaging in hands-on projects to solve problems that are relevant to them.
I Promise also believes that a student’s life outside the classroom has a huge bearing on her academic performance, particularly for children of color and those who grow up poor. So the school is providing programs to help improve kids' ability to, for example, regulate their emotions, develop self-awareness, and cooperate with others. I Promise also places an emphasis on mental and physical health for both students and teachers, offering the following resources:
- Technology-free zones “for decompression”
- Personal training sessions for teachers
- A garden
- A mindfulness meeting every morning
Data compiled in 2015 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development suggests that while a growing number of districts and states are embracing this idea of educating "the whole child," it’s hardly yet the norm.
4. It helps provide for the basic needs of students' families
A key, if not the key, facet of I Promise’s “whole child” approach is the weight it gives to family support. “We understand,” Campbell says, “that if you send a child home with no dinner or let a child leave school without knowing where they’re going to sleep that night, there’s no way that child is going to learn.”
At the center of the school’s community-engagement work is a family resource center, whose staff includes a “liaison” tasked with connecting families with educational resources (like GED programs and English-as-a-second-language classes) and other services, like child care. Family members (as well as students) also have access to amenities to support their everyday needs: a barbershop and hair salon, financial-literacy tutorials, and a food pantry, to name a few.
This resource center, Campbell says, was informed by a body of research showing that things like parental stress and dysfunctional homes can significantly undermine a child’s ability to learn.
5. Its founder is LeBron James, and his fingerprints are all over the master plan.
Yes, James is widely considered to be the best basketball player in the world. Yes, he has 41.3 million followers on Twitter. And yes, his net worth is at least $440 million. But he also has a history of progressive political activism, and has advocated for racial justice, the Black Lives Matter movement, and gun control; his involvement in education issues traces at least as far back as 2011, when he partnered with State Farm to launch an initiative geared toward reducing the high-school dropout rate. The I Promise school’s pillars seem drawn directly from James's philosophy: “Be Best: Constant pursuit of improvement,” “Family: If you fail, we fail,” and “Mindfulness: Drop baggage at the door,” to name a few.
James is also intimately familiar with the needs of the community I Promise is serving. Raised in Akron by a single mom who had him when she a teenager, James had a turbulent childhood and at times struggled in school; in the fourth grade, he says he missed the equivalent of 16 weeks of school days. In a country where ambitious educational ventures like I Promise are so often driven by philanthropists who parachute in from somewhere else, James is spearheading something that is both truly novel and close to home.
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