Just Some Kids from Northeast Ohio
LeBron James opened the I Promise School to help at-risk students. One year later, not only are they thriving but they're also bringing the community with them. Could the school set a blueprint for others across the country?July 17, 2019
For someone who has never seen the early-morning rush at the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, it is a joyful sensory overload at first. It feels like being in close proximity to the floor of a basketball court when the home team's starting lineup is announced. Kids spill out of cars and into the school building, where they are greeted by a line of adults and older students who clap them into the building. The radio version of a DJ Khaled hit blares from speakers, pouring down the winding staircases at the entrance. Mostly, the students run through the line of clapping hands, jumping up for high-fives or strolling confidently, brushing off a white sneaker or a T-shirt in the process. On average, the whole ritual takes more than 30 minutes.
It's just a glimpse of the way in which LeBron James is trying to change public schooling in Akron for children labeled "at risk." Warmth is key: If a student entering the building seems distressed or unresponsive to the enthusiastic ruckus, someone gently pulls him or her aside to check in. The people who work at the school know these kids well enough to decode a smile or lack thereof. "At the I Promise School, everything is different," says Ciara DeBruce, who has a daughter heading into the fourth grade there. "Everyone genuinely cares."
The word "family" is peppered throughout the school: on walls, on shirts, on its materials, on a large black flag that sits at the school's back door. Everything the school does is done to foster the idea that everything within the walls of the building is an extension of the family unit a student left behind to come to school that day. Everyone at the I Promise School has a nickname, Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, tells me. She rattles them off matter-of-factly as each adult passes by. There's Kit Kat, Tyga, someone who is simply nicknamed "No. 1." Everyone calls Campbell "Boss," though in a way that is not necessarily tied to any rigid hierarchy. It's more playful, endearing. "If you stay here long enough," Campbell says, "we'll get you a nickname, too."
LeBron, of course, is adorned with the most famous nickname of all. The one that echoes both within these halls and far outside of it. When King James was a fourth grader, he missed 83 days of school. He moved constantly, burdened by instability at home. Through a network of people who believed in him and who saw the potential his future held, he flourished. Speaking with ESPN's Rachel Nichols in 2018, he explained what might be considered a guiding philosophy of the I Promise School: "I think that's what kids ultimately want: They just want someone to feel like someone cares about them. And that's what we're trying to do here."
The doors of the I Promise School are just a few stones' throws away from where LeBron's legacy took flight: St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. If you are an Ohioan of a certain era, you may have found yourself driving through the sometimes crummy weather of Northeastern Ohio on a fall or winter evening in the early 2000s. You may have found yourself standing in a line or hovering outside open gymnasium doors just to get a small glimpse of He Who Would Be King. So many of us in this state and beyond watched him in disbelief, climbing endlessly on the air during warmups, flinging passes through impossible slivers of unoccupied space. Now, James is reshaping the worlds of children who were like he once was. They might not yet have world-changing dreams beyond getting through the day and making it better than the day before it, but James is surrounding them with an entire roster of adults who believe in them. The I Promise School is the bridge from one past to several futures.
The second morning ritual at the I Promise School begins in a circle. After breakfast, students are asked to react to a song—how it makes them feel or not feel, what it inspires in them, what it reminds them of. On the floor of a dark classroom, students sit in a circle and crane their necks toward the wall, where a projector is playing the full eight-minute video for "We Are The World." As the song churns forward, the group doesn't fidget or squirm, as one might expect of young children. Instead, the students sit still, gazing at the video with fascination. One girl, maybe nine years old, leaps up and yells "CYNDI!" as Cyndi Lauper briefly flashes across the screen.
The post-song process of exploring the kids' feelings and thoughts is miraculous to see—young people examining and expressing their feelings with their own language. Their desires are simple but profound. One student says he wants to have a good day, better than the last one. "How are you going to do that?" the teacher asks. The student ponders and then perks up and insists that he's going to help his classmates, share and speak up when he has a problem. It's the small things. Talk to the students like anyone else trying to figure out how to stumble through life the best way they can.
This is one of the numerous "trauma-informed" practices that the I Promise School employs to connect with its students. It's part of a holistic approach to learning that the school's trauma specialist, Nicole Hassan, boils down to simply being aware of what might be going on with a student and finding useful solutions to helping them work through their problems. It starts with getting students to identify whatever their baggage is, and then working to find a way to leave it at the door. "We encourage them to find the language to talk through what to do," Hassan, who has taught in Akron Public Schools for 15 years, says. She took on her role at the I Promise School after studying the work of Bruce Perry, a doctor with a specialty in trauma and healing in children. "So now, it's no longer about yelling or hitting someone."
Much of the day at the I Promise School revolves around conversation, sitting in circles. "Getting the brain out of survival mode and to a place where it can think and process," Hassan says. "It's transformational." By focusing on varying the modes of communication between students and adults, I Promise is, by extension, serving the parents. DeBruce has heard from other parents how the tools are transforming their lives at home. "I know a lot of parents that have experienced a barrier with communication," she says. "There's just been a wall up, and it's been hard to figure out 'how do we get through it?' It feels good to have that open communication and trust."
The I Promise School is more than just a traditional space for learning, Campbell tells me. Indeed, the words "at risk" seem to mean something different inside these walls than outside of them. For me and the kids I knew growing up, being "at risk" simply meant that no one wanted to put up with us. That we had drained the energy out of the people around us and therefore had to be placed somewhere else, and then another somewhere else, and then another. The I Promise School places a pin in that cycle. It makes simply being present a singular gift.
"At the I Promise School, everything is different. Everyone genuinely cares."
—Ciara DeBruce, an I Promise School parent
The school currently has about 240 students, all in third or fourth grade. (James has said the fourth grade is "where it started for me.") With each year, the school plans to add a new class until it is up to teaching grades one through eight. The slow growth not only allows staff to adjust to changes slowly and make sure they're getting the work as right as possible, but it also allows for the slow and thoughtful growth of the actual building space. During my day at the school, construction workers are hustling to finish a new gym space, adding on to the back of the school. Still, the school is situated in a low-income district, and it does have limited capacity to serve every student who is eligible to attend. A lottery system determines which students will go to the school.
"These students left their home school that they were comfortable in. Most of them left brothers and sisters," Campbell tells me. "Just because you got drawn in a lottery doesn't mean your brother or sister can come."
In the early weeks, that proved to be a difficult adjustment for the first cohort of enrollees. The school had to account for that dichotomy. "New teacher, new people, new students that they don't know. It took us a good six weeks. We threw out teaching math and science and reading"—at least initially, Campbell says. "And we really got down about how to be a family. And what are our expectations of a family? How do we treat family members?"
The faculty then shifted the focus of the lessons to double down on the concept of family and what family means. It was a success. "Now we speak a common language," Campbell says.
The first step in clearing a mental and emotional path to learning is to treat each student like they are worthy of having someone believing in them. "When we talk about family, it's real," says Toni Roberts, a retiring fourth-grade teacher. "So even if a student isn't in my class, that student is still my student. These students are all of ours."
The I Promise School is an example of what can happen when people are willing to communally take a handful of extra steps and a few shared sacrifices. Roberts has taught in Akron Public Schools for 32 years. "When I came here," she says, "people would tell me: 'It's not going to work over there. When you go over there, you've got those bottom kids. There's no way that you're going to be able to maintain what you've done all these years and still keep it going.'
"Well, guess what? Yes, it does. These kids know how to respect. They know how to be loving. They know how to give love in return. So, don't tell me that it's not possible with what we poured into the school. Look at all of this."
Students playfully march down Balch Street, which runs through central Akron. Their chants echo down what is an otherwise sleepy street: a man mows the lawn of a church, a woman with a bookbag hustles to catch a bus. Wide, towering homes curve around the back of the I Promise School and stretch for well over a mile. The large black school flag dances unevenly with whatever breeze the thick humidity of Ohio can spare. Some cars honk their horns, some people poke their heads out of their homes, first perplexed and then smiling.
The school is having a picnic on Friday, and the students are making this walk to the Balch Street Community Center to spruce up the outdoor area. They pass out invites to their neighbors along the way. One student excitedly runs to the back of the line and finds Campbell. "You wanna see something cool?" the student shouts. She does. The student opens her hand and reveals some treasure found on the walk. A leaf, or a coin, or a rock. Something that those without a sense of wonder might consider unspectacular.
At the Balch Street Community Center, some of the students take to landscaping with the seriousness of someone who has had a career in the trade. Others dig into boxes of chalk and begin creating designs on the sidewalk. It's work, but it feels celebratory. To be here is a choice that everyone gets excited about, and to miss out on it seems unfathomable. While most young kids spend their summers tearing through the streets on bikes or crowding around televisions, joyfully draining the uncommitted daytime hours, I Promise School kids fill in every classroom. "They all just … want to be here," Campbell says.
The I Promise School is a public school. But it varies in several ways from most public schools in the area. The school day is longer, with days running from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The school year is also longer—it runs from late July to mid-May. There are small breaks built into the school year, but once June starts, summer camp begins. The camp, much like the school itself, deviates from traditional summer camp schedules. There is some traditional learning woven in, but much of the summer camp focuses on ways the members of the school—both students and faculty—can engage their neighbors through acts of community service.
This is made possible in part thanks to outside partners that give resources to keep the school running and help it succeed. The LeBron James Family Foundation spent around $600,000 in the school's first year, according to the New York Times. (The school's budget mostly comes from the district. Per-pupil spending is roughly the same as in other schools.) Another local partner is J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., whose employees are out today, moving mulch and pulling weeds alongside the I Promise School students, in the middle of what would be their work day. (Chase also has partnered with the LeBron James Family Foundation to help local kids get into coding.)
Part of this overwhelming community commitment is tied to the way James showed a specific investment in the youth of his hometown before the school opened. In 2011, 342 Akron third-graders made a promise to James that they would stay in school, give back to the community and be kind to others. In return, LeBron promised to be the best role model he could be. Those third-graders are now on the verge of graduating high school. Some of them are here at the I Promise School for summer camp, acting as models for what the fullest potential of the grade-school students can become. This is the foundation of the I Promise School—a series of commitments made between older people and younger people until a lineage of greatness is fulfilled.
The way James' drive and passion seeps into the spaces he occupies makes it easy to rally behind him and his ideas for what a community could be. It does help that he is both wealthy and visible. But even with that starting block firmly in place, James has never wavered in his concerns and interests. He's always been a child of Akron, looking for ways to continue pushing the children of Akron forward.
For all of the ways the I Promise School is encased in a unique type of magic, Akron Public Schools at large have many challenges. Keith Liechty, coordinator for school improvement at Akron Public Schools Office of School Improvement, keeps a tally. "We definitely over the past decade have declined and lost student enrollment as people have moved out of the city," he says. "We continue to shrink our footprint, close schools, rezone kids, so people who can move do move oftentimes. So, we have a high poverty rate. We're struggling on our state report card. We pride ourselves as being one of the top urban [districts], but that's not good enough when you're looking at kids going to college and kids graduating high school. We're [at a] 70 percent graduation rate and lower sometimes. We have Fs on our middle school, high school, elementary report cards, meaning kids aren't achieving in comparison to the other kids across the state.
"We're making gains, but they aren't enough."
If you grow up in a certain type of place—one that is violent, loving and neglected by the city around it—your potential is often determined by myths perpetuated by those who don't know you, your people or your passions. They might tell you sports are the only way out. Maybe music, if you're lucky. They might look at you as if you are looking for an escape (when you aren't). They assume you are only destined for specific glories; there is no capability to achieve others.
The I Promise School follows the lead of its founder. The belief is that success in a child's passions should carry them through to adulthood, whatever those passions might be. They could be a welder or a lawyer or go into the military. The first class, Campbell says, will either go to college or enter the workforce in 2029. There will be scholarships waiting for them at the University of Akron if they want them. The foundation opened the I Promise Institute at the University of Akron in 2018, and the school of education was named after the LeBron James Family Foundation. Because of these partnerships, the university offered scholarships to students of the I Promise School with an explicit goal of making sure kids from Akron stay in Akron if they choose to. So they don't feel like the college looming over their backyard isn't for them. A city improves from the inside, and the hope is that some of Akron's brightest young people remain and reinvent the landscape. But as the I Promise School grows, adds new grades and builds a stronger high school pipeline, the bigger goal is getting students equipped to grow into whatever interests them. The idea is to have so many paths available to students that failure isn't an option.
"These kids know how to respect. They know how to be loving. They know how to give love in return. So, don't tell me that it's not possible with what we poured into the school."
—Toni Roberts, a retiring fourth-grade teacher at I Promise School
That's very different from teaching to test scores, which, as you may have heard by now, are good. In April, the New York Times reported that 90 percent of the students at I Promise School met or exceeded individual growth goals in a district assessment. The results were a cause for mild celebration—every success builds a small bridge to the next, and the next—but around campus, the mood was restrained, patient. The thing about not seeing children as numbers is that if you're going to commit to it, you have to commit to it even when the numbers are good.
Campbell insists that they're focused on whatever else can be done better. "You know I always think about that game where LeBron scored 52 points against the Knicks," she says. "And all he could think about was that he missed some free throws. So, he was in the gym, the day after scoring 52 points, shooting free throws. So yeah, we're going to get better. We're going to move into phase two construction, we're going to listen to what the teachers need, we're going to continue to move regardless of what those critics or the world throws at us. Our Family Resource Center needs more work. We don't have a laundry room to serve these students and their families. We need to upgrade our yoga room. We had a great year, but we're not going to get comfortable."
There's an unmistakable aesthetic and tone to the I Promise School. The way its teachers and leaders speak about goals and dreams. The marching and chanting and locking arms. The forward-looking determination, no matter what success and failures arise. It's a school using a framework that is at least partially built by one of the most driven athletes of all time, and it is reflected in everyone involved.
Back at the Balch Street Community Center, the ground beneath our feet is beginning to transform. Children are painting stepping stones for the walkway. Some are doing yoga. The pavement is awash with pastels. The green walkway to the center of the center eagerly blooms with possibility. Everything feels limitless. Outside, kids from Akron are clapping the colored chalk off their hands, and the dust is singing in the air.
As our day winds down, I ask Campbell about how anyone involved knows when to be satisfied with the work. If there are no critics to prove wrong, and if the school sustains its success for more than just one or two good years, how can a point of satisfaction be determined within the larger project of I Promise?
"If something were to happen to me tonight, and I were no longer here on Earth, I'd be proud of what we done," she tells me. "We've done our best job so far. Practically speaking, when those students graduate, when these students are caught up, we've done our jobs. When I can look at their families and say we have helped that family unit give them everything that they need to be successful, and they just needed someone to love and care for them. ...
"But from a high-level perspective, the whole point is that we're never going to stop," she continues. "When LeBron started this program, we had this conversation about if we start this, this never ends. … We need to build something that will live beyond all of us."
And with that, we walk back out onto the sidewalk. The chalk has settled into the pavement. The drawings are all varied—one towering figure holding a basketball, a few animals. I lift my own foot, and there is a drawing of a small person holding hands with two larger people, all smiling. Surrounded by a circle of hearts.
Down the block, the curved white tower affixed to the top of the I Promise School pokes out above the rest of the Akron landscape. I am reminded of the people who once made pilgrimages to this city in the corner of Northeast Ohio to watch something miraculous happen. Now, people come once again to Akron looking to witness a new and better miracle.
James comes from a long line of people who believed in him, and a city that believed in him, and here he is, widening a path. His old sneakers in the hallways, his quotes etched into hallways. It is impossible to look upon the I Promise School without seeing where James comes from. The small and hopeful circle to which he's always returned.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer from the east side of Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of numerous books, including They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us and, most recently, Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.