J. Pharoah Doss: LeBron’s school didn’t promise miracles  

In this July 30, 2018, file photo, LeBron James speaks at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

The Akron Beacon Journal reported that upcoming eighth graders at LeBron James’s I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, hadn’t passed the math portion of their state proficiency exam in three years. 

Right-wing publications ran harsh headlines indicating LeBron James’ school was a disaster. However, a school cannot be blamed for failing to fulfill a target that it did not expect to meet. 

In 2018, the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools collaborated to open the I Promise School. It began with 240 third and fourth graders, with plans to extend into grades one through eight by 2022. The school was designed to act as an intervention for the school district’s lowest-performing students. (The lowest-performing students in Akron were almost two grade levels behind.) 

The I Promise Program had operated in Akron elementary schools for over a decade prior to the establishment of this school. The students were distributed throughout the district, making it difficult to connect them with services that might assist their “growth.” The I Promise School solved that problem by placing all of the lowest-performing students in one location. 

Despite being lauded as a LeBron James-founded institution, I Promise School is not a private or charter school. According to Michelle Campbell, Executive Director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, by incorporating I Promise into the public school system, “what we’re doing becomes scalable,” and the school will serve as a “learning laboratory” for the rest of the country. 

As a result, Akron Public Schools controlled the curriculum and ensured that I Promise School met educational standards, while LeBron served as the primary donor to help shape the outside-the-classroom goals of the school. The school’s declared goal is to improve the well-being of residents across Akron—not just the students. The school will put in place support services that are uncommon in traditional public schools. 

The school provides a family resource center where families can find GED programs, English as a Second Language classes, and child care. A barbershop, a hair salon, a financial literacy tutorial, and a food pantry are available to family members. 

As far as the students are concerned, the master plan for I Promise School claims that the school will utilize the best practices of STEM education and provide programs to assist students in regulating their emotions, developing self-awareness, and cooperating with others. Their grand strategy is to “educate the whole child.” However, most of the critics believe that I Promise School students have failed the math component of the state exam because of this holistic approach to education. 

Because academics are a portion of the student but not everything, holistic education encourages teachers to consider the student as a whole. Other elements of the person must be nurtured as well. It is the student’s lack of these other elements that prevents them from learning in a traditional setting. As an intervention, holistic education can help them “grow” into grade-level learners. 

The New York Times reported that within its first year, 90 percent of I Promise School’s inaugural class met or exceeded “growth goals” in reading and math. The I Promise School was praised for its success. Two Democratic Senators even introduced a bill to fund partnerships between schools and communities in an attempt to replicate the I Promise model in places that don’t have “a LeBron James.” 

However, the use of the term “growth goals” was misleading. 

Students make progress in “growth”, achievement, or both. “Growth” measures students’ personal growth from one year to the next, whereas accomplishment determines whether students are performing at grade level. For all of this time, the school has received A’s for “growth” but F’s for “achievement.”  

The pandemic and the school closures, according to Akron’s School Board President, hurt I Promise School, but the pandemic also hurt students who didn’t attend I Promise. The kids who didn’t attend I Promise, the ones without all the resources, are actually performing better. “I’m just trying to understand why,” he said. “I think it’s a fair question to ask.” 

And there’s a fair answer. 

I Promise School aimed for “growth” and hoped for achievement but never promised miracles. 




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