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LeBron James Supports Public Education by Supporting Teachers AND Parents

April 16, 2019

Unlike most celebrities who claim to support public education in an effort to help disadvantaged children, NBA superstar LeBron James is different kind of education philanthropist. LeBron James is walking the talk by supporting a public school in his hometown of Akron OH called I Promise governed by a democratically elected local school school board, a school for designed for students who “...were identified as the worst performers in the Akron public schools and branded with behavioral problems. Some as young as 8 were considered at risk of not graduating.” And because Mr. James was once one of those poor performers himself, he realizes that schools who serve poor children need more time to learn and their parents need help as well. As a result, Mr. James is providing supplementary funding for before and after school programs, programs when schools are closed, free provisions for parents, and a training program for parents to earn their GEDs. After a year… the results are coming in and, while I am no fan of the metrics they are using, the school is showing promise.

The academic results are early, and at 240, the sample size of students is small, but the inaugural classes of third and fourth graders at I Promise posted extraordinary results in their first set of district assessments. Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.

“These kids are doing an unbelievable job, better than we all expected,” Mr. James said in a telephone interview hours before a game in Los Angeles for the Lakers. “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.”

What distinguishes I Promise is it’s implicit acknowledgement that parent engagement is crucially important and poor parents have complications that exceed those of their affluent counterparts. Because of that, Mr. James offers funding to support the parents as fellas the teachers and children:

The school is unusual in the resources and attention it devotes to parents, which educators consider a key to its success. Mr. James’s foundation covers the cost of all expenses in the school’s family resource center, which provides parents with G.E.D. preparation, work advice, health and legal services, and even a quarterly barbershop.

Another distinguishing factor of I Promise is the pool of students it serves:

I Promise students were among those identified by the district as performing in the 10th to 25th percentile on their second-grade assessments. They were then admitted through a lottery.

“These were the children where you went and talked with their old teachers, and they said, ‘This will never work,’” Dr. Campbell said. “We said give them to us.”

They are called the “Chosen Ones,” an ode to the headline that donned Mr. James’s first Sports Illustrated cover when he was a junior in high school, and which he later had tattooed across his shoulder blades.

And the I Promise school DOES get more money, money that is used to underwrite the parent resource center noted above and a resource center for students and teachers as well:

But the I Promise School was a recognition that the foundation’s community services were not enough. They needed to reach students earlier. They secured an old district office building that served as a holding place for schools in transition, poured in $2 million and counting for improvements and reopened it in seven weeks. The school opened in July 2018 and is expected to serve 720 students in third through eighth grade by 2022.

The foundation’s support affords I Promise more resources than the average school, but Ms. Davis, a veteran principal in the district, said the school values things that no money could buy.

“It doesn’t take money to build relationships,” she said. “It doesn’t take money for you to teach students how to love.”

This past year some former teammates have criticized LeBron James for failing to give them the credit they deserve for contributing to championships he won and for pointing fingers at them when the team suffered losses. But LeBron James’ reaction to the success of his school counters that image:

While Mr. James called the school “the coolest thing that I’ve done in my life thus far,” he said he could take credit for only a small part of what was happening.

“I had the vision of wanting to give back to my community. The people around every day are helping that vision come to life,” he said. “Half the battle is trying to engage them and show that there’s always going to be somebody looking out for them.”

The article described a single parent who was disengaged and had given up but now felt that someone from her hometown was looking out for her. In an ideal democracy, that is the notion every parent should have… that her neighbors are looking out her well-being. Nowadays, though, disengaged parents have a different sense: that her neighbors are looking down on her and blaming her for the poor performance of her children.

The veteran principal in Akron is right in saying that “It doesn’t take money to build relationships (or) for you to teach students how to love.” But it does take money to provide the kinds of parent programs and expanded community services that LeBron James is providing his chosen ones, the children whose old teachers had projected as drop outs and troublemakers.

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