LeBron James Legacy in Akron

The I Promise School
Posted on 07/02/2018
Image of I Promise School Building(as reported by Zac Jackson, The Athletic)

LeBron​ James has​ been​ doing​ good​ deeds​ in​ his​ hometown for​ 15 years. For​ the​​ past seven, his foundation’s “I PROMISE” program has given millions of dollars and hundreds of opportunities to Akron Public Schools students in myriad ways, most notably his 2015 pledge to pay for more than 1,000 students to attend The University of Akron.

While the basketball world awaits James’ deci– er, announcement, in the coming days regarding his playing future, he’s about a month from what he’s on many occasions called his most important accomplishment: In late July, the I PROMISE School opens in Akron. A LeBron James Family Foundation project, the school’s focus will be on at-risk children and their families with a year-round, specialized curriculum.

James was joking last fall when he said he “might be an assistant principal” at the school, but he’s long been visible and proactive when it comes to the foundation. He likes to say that if his name is on it, he’s involved. And LeBron James Family Foundation executive director Michele Campbell said she “feels a little like one of LeBron’s teammates” when the guy whose name is on the door gets excited about and personally invested in one of the foundation’s projects.

“LeBron is continually pushing us,” Campbell said. “I remember reporting back to him at one point that we had begun to come to the conclusion that the best way to reach the number of families we wanted to was going to be to put them in one school building. And LeBron’s reaction was, ‘Well, why aren’t we doing it? Let’s get that done.’

“Now that it’s almost here, we’re just so excited and proud of the work that’s gone into it. In everything with the foundation, we go back to the questions of who really is LeBron James and what were his experiences on his way to becoming the man he is today? He had a lot of people around him who helped him become the man he is. He was an Akron Public Schools student through eighth grade. To be in position now to directly impact so many families and so many kids with whom he has shared experiences is a tremendous blessing.”

A typical day at the I PROMISE School, principal Brandi Davis explained, will include small-group instruction; a humanities and engineering block; built-in extracurricular activities, including but not limited to robotics club, soccer and Spanish club; and family-based programs such as GED preparation and English as a Second Language instruction.

The I PROMISE School is a public elementary school, not a charter school. Family programs and extracurriculars are built into the curriculum and the extended school day. Per the foundation website, the school’s vision includes “an expansion of Akron Public Schools curriculum with a STEM, hands-on, problem-based learning focus” to create a “place where students are supported and challenged.”

The foundation funded fact-finding trips for Davis and other school employees to urban schools “up and down the Eastern Seaboard,” Campbell said, with hopes of “taking the best practices, learning how they’d best fit the I PROMISE School, and ultimately creating our own model to fit the best educational and inclusion philosophies.” Even with the challenges associated with basically starting from scratch and an abbreviated timeline, Campbell hasn’t changed or backed down from the school’s ultimate goal: to be the model of urban public education.

“A one-stop shop for families,” Davis said. “The focus is on the whole child, the whole family and year-round education and improvement.”

Davis is an Akron native who was most recently a principal at another Akron Public Schools elementary. She’s worked alongside district officials, foundation officials and community leaders from various backgrounds who were part of the school project’s initial planning and consultation. The LeBron James Family Foundation has more than 100 community partners, many of them local businesses that are specifically involved with the school in efforts that include fundraising and supporting various initiatives. Davis, who had been serving on the foundation’s advisory board, was chosen as principal from 35 applicants.

“There’s a heck a lot of pressure, not just on me but on all of us,” Davis said. “We welcome it. For me, this is a calling. It’s an unbelievable opportunity.

“We have lofty goals. But we also have the support, the vision and the ambition to make this succeed and eventually become the model others follow. The spirit of LeBron’s giving and his vision encourages every one of us to think big, and our student base will only benefit from a family-based approach.”

A formal plan for the I PROMISE School was submitted in April 2017, and final approval for a 2018 opening came last fall. The school will open to third- and fourth-graders July 30. First- and second-grade classes will be added next year, and by 2022 it will house students in grades 1-8. There are currently 34 employees and 12 teachers, and “a whole lot more” will be added over the next few years,

Davis said. Students identified as best fits for the I PROMISE curriculum will be chosen via a lottery system, and the school eventually plans to fill at least three classrooms per grade level annually.

Earlier this month, more than 200 volunteers — most of them students at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where James was a student — spent a day moving desks, chairs and other items into the new school’s building, which had previously been used by Akron Public Schools as a swing space during various construction projects. Students, teachers and administrators will wear the I PROMISE wristbands James wears nearly every day, and each school day will start students and teachers reciting James’ promise pledge.

In a prepared statement late last year that followed the official announcement of the school moving forward, James said the chance “to meet the needs of these kids and their families means everything to me. There are so many kids and families struggling, and we want this school to be a safe, positive place that helps them stay on the right track to earning their educations.” When first discussing the school in a public setting, James better explained his personal attachment to his latest project benefiting Northeast Ohio kids, that the school bearing his name is aimed toward kids who faced similar challenges he faced when growing up.

“We’ve got so many kids that just don’t have no way out,” he said. “And we don’t have many people that try to help them get out as well. I feel like I’ve got so much to give to my hometown … so much to offer.

“It’s crazy, to be honest, that I have a school opening up. A real school. The basketball thing: It’s fun, I love it. I enjoy it. But to give back, being able to open up a school, that’s something that’ll last beyond my years.”
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