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LeBron James Keeps Promise to Akron with ‘More Than a School’

AKRON, OHIO -- It’s Week 5 of the I PROMISE School’s inaugural year. The school’s 240 students are all gearing up for state standard testing, just like the rest of their peers across Akron Public Schools. The shorter summer and longer days took some getting used to, but by and large, everyone has adapted.

On this September day, though, the kids at the I PROMISE School (IPS) have a special visitor from the West—not LeBron James ditching Los Angeles Lakers training camp, but someone who will nonetheless leave a mark on campus.

“Today, we had an artist come in from Arizona and we had a little hands-on art session, and then he commissioned a piece for the school. I just left that exciting moment,” Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, tells CloseUp360. “The kids were asking a lot of questions of the artist, so it’s going well.”

That kind of treat is more than most public schools in northeast Ohio would likely get. But it’s not the only surprise visit these students have had of late. In early October, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel stopped by the IPS following the celebrity couple’s trip to Cleveland on Timberlake’s Man of the Woods world tour.

For reasons beyond guest appearances like these, the IPS is more than a school—not just because LeBron is involved, but because his journey is the inspiration behind it.

It’s a place for kids who grew up like he did, made possible in large part by the man he has since become. In so many ways, the IPS is an embodiment of all he went through as the only child of a single mother, and a manifestation of all that it took to keep him from becoming a statistic.

“I wanted to keep it as consistent with what I went through as a kid as possible,” LeBron says on opening day at the IPS. “I understand the mental state that goes in with these kids and where they come from, some of the trials and tribulations that they go through. So I wanted to keep it as consistent and as authentic to when I was a kid. I remember being them.”

LeBron James I Promise School fence

LeBron James greets students at the I PROMISE School in Akron, Ohio, on its opening day in July 2018. (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

It all started a couple of years ago, with a discussion between Campbell, IPS principal Brandi Davis and Keith Liechty, Akron Public Schools’ (APS) coordinator for school improvement and the district liaison to the LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF).

While working to help the APS district's entire student body of almost 22,000 kids across 45 schools—more than 1,400 of whom are in the I PROMISE Network—the trio landed on a solution that could work for everyone.

"We had a dream,” Campbell recalls the day before the school’s opening. “If we could just bring [the students] together in one place, and everyone drank the same Kool-Aid and wore this ‘We Are Family’ philosophy on their shirt and in their heart, it’d be solved.”

In a LJFF meeting soon thereafter, Campbell, who’s worked with LeBron for 15 years, shared the proposal with him. He responded without hesitation.

“Michele kinda looked at me with the notion of, ‘We’re not really ready to do that,’ but I gave her the command to, like, ‘Go do it,’” LeBron says. “And once I told her to go do it, it’s nothing that she can’t do. If I tell her to go build a rocket to take us to outer space, Michele could make that happen.”

To create a school that’s authentic to LeBron, though, Campbell also needed insight from his mother, Gloria.

“’Tell us what would've been helpful to you,’” Campbell says of the talks with the Jameses. “What would you have needed to help you?' So that's where we started our research that started to help us understand how to help kids and families just like them, which then expanded to talking to our own families.”

Students sit with their teacher in the foyer of the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

Students sit with their teacher in the foyer. (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

The LJFF, which moves quickly and embraces change, considered going the private or charter route to found the school. But despite the problems posed by the approval processes of APS and the state of Ohio, Campbell and her collaborators decided it was best to make the IPS public.

“[LeBron] has such influence to create real change,” she says. “And to be able to do that in the public system and to be able to share how we've done that, and share where we've made mistakes with other urban districts that might want to learn kind of how we're doing this, I think, is the beauty of all of this.”

In that way, the school would also stay true to LeBron’s roots.

“He went to Akron Public Schools,” Liechty says. “It was the community that helped him and his mother, Gloria. It was teachers, it was administrators.

“So it was important for the foundation to kind of help us and really to look at something bigger—look at our community and change urban education across the country.”

From there, Campbell, Davis and Liechty contacted APS superintendent David James, assistant superintendent Ellen McWilliams-Woods and the teachers’ union to sort through the issues of their proposed public-private partnership. Bringing these worlds together, according to Campbell, was difficult. But sharing the same goal helped create the perfect marriage of ideas.

On April 11, 2017, APS and LJFF announced a partnership to found the school. Not a year-and-a-half later, the IPS opened its doors, a few blocks from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School—where LeBron won three state titles—and adjacent to a McDonald’s that opened when he was growing up in the West Akron neighborhood known as “The Bottom.”

On July 30, 2018, at the end of the first day of school, every student went home with a Chromebook (something LeBron never had as a child) and a bicycle (one of the few things LeBron did have). The latter came as an extension of the LJFF's "Wheels For Education" program.

“I think a kid’s first notion is to be around people that they feel like they care,” LeBron says. “That’s what kids want to know: do you care about me? And we do here. So the greatness is going to be up to us.”

LeBron James I Promise School bicycle

A student heads home with a bicycle from the LJFF's "Wheels for Education" program. (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

The students were chosen at random by the school's committee using data to identify third and fourth graders who struggled with reading. LeBron, too, had issues with reading as a child—to the extent that, according to Campbell, he would've likely been identified as a candidate for the IPS.

While brainstorming the logistics behind the IPS, administrators and representatives from APS and LJFF settled on three basic principles to apply: a STEM curriculum, trauma-informed instruction and wraparound support.

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum came as a recommendation from Davis, who has worked in APS for 18 years and served on the LJFF board since its founding. For her, it was crucial to choose a hands-on approach to education, where the kids would be able to learn visually and actively apply the knowledge they’ve absorbed.

Trauma-informed instruction is a combination of ideas set forth by APS and the IPS partners to address how life outside of school can affect the educational experiences of the students within. The concept came from observations of systems used by elementary schools to high schools across the country. That, combined with the feedback from LeBron and Gloria, helped ensure the best possible situation for the students.

“We want to create that safe, that secure, that caring and that loving environment for our families and our students, so that our kids can focus on education,” Davis says. “And that’s what we’re all about.”

The premise of wraparound support is to go above and beyond educating students—with academic, career and emotional assistance for parents, siblings and close relatives.

The Akron community similarly wrapped around LeBron and Gloria when they needed it most. From his basketball coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary, Dru Joyce II, to his youth football coach, Frank Walker, to teachers and neighbors, members of the community became their friends, and those friends became family.

LeBron James I Promise School students

Students arrive for their first day of school. (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

Understanding how life outside of a classroom can affect what goes on inside of it, the IPS aims to engage whole families and eliminate potential barriers to learning.

“A lot of what we do within that or some of the practices have come to us from LeBron and how he lives his life," Campbell says, "how he reflects about being better each day and takes some time to kinda break away from the noise, if you will, and talk through how life is affecting us."

The IPS strives to foster a wholesome environment where everyone embraces family. Its purpose is to offer an opportunity for those who didn’t get a fair start to catch up with those who did—and to serve as a safe haven for at-risk students.

The IPS, then, would have been the perfect place for LeBron, the kid. As a fourth-grader at Harris Elementary, he missed 82 days of school. There was no stability in his life. He and Gloria frequently moved from place to place without a car. “School didn’t mean anything,” LeBron says.

“It was day to day where I didn’t know where I would be living, so it was no way that I could even get there,” he adds. “So it was a surprise to me when I woke up and I was actually going to school.”

To ensure its students can always get to school, the IPS offers bussing for those who live more than two miles away. To keep their bodies and minds well fed, the school provides a free breakfast, lunch and snack to each student daily.

LeBron James I Promise School bus

Students arrive by bus to the school. (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

The IPS also operates on its own schedule. Each school day runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., on a calendar that’s 17 days longer than that of the typical public school in Akron. To eliminate what the IPS calls “summer slide,” students will attend seven weeks of camps—from basketball and robotics, to swimming and community work, all involving reading in some capacity—during the 10 weeks between school years.

These ideas, too, were inspired by discussions with LeBron and Gloria. Everybody involved agreed that more hours meant more learning opportunities in each school day, and an extended school year meant more time to catch up.

“The camps, the extra hour each day—that's all coming from understanding that we need to move the children and every day we lose more time,” Campbell says. “So the more time we can add on to that, the better off we're gonna be to get them caught up at where they need to be.”

In addition, the individualized I PROMISE Family Care Plan, the in-house family resource center that’s supplied by partners and businesses in the local community, helps with everyday life. The LJFF’s “I PROMISE, Too” program encourages parents who don’t have high school diplomas to earn their GEDs. Since the program began three years ago, 10 parents have done just that, and more than 30 have enrolled in the class.

“As you’re talking about changing a child from being a statistic, you go deeper, and if they can watch their parent graduate, the statistics show that raises their ability to graduate,” Campbell says. “It was kind of a no-brainer.”

Though LeBron is listed as a vice principal at the IPS, he won't be on campus that often—but his presence will be felt day-to-day. He’s providing teachers and faculty with personal trainers and snacks to make sure they’re at the top of their game.

LeBron has also used his platform as the biggest name in basketball to promote and support the IPS on social media, national talk shows and beyond. He changed his profile picture on Instagram to a photo of the IPS’ main hall. And during an appearance on The Ellen Show alongside actor Channing Tatum this past September, LeBron completed a series of dares—from taking a tequila shot with no hands, to licking a mystery item, to eating ice cream topped with hot sauce—to raise $100,000 for the school.

While LeBron criss-crosses the country in the purple and gold, he will continue to receive weekly updates from Campbell and other staff. He will be briefed on everything from academic progress to innovative suggestions, in order to better the IPS.

“I want to make sure we keep tabs on them every day, keeping them up to speed, keeping them engaged and having a lot of fun, too,” LeBron says. “I think learning should be fun as well. We want them to never feel like they’re showing up to work, but showing up to a family reunion. You get so many great things out of that.”

Says Campbell: “He's expecting that we're gonna have awesome results and that every child's probably gonna get a 4.0."

LeBron James speaks during the opening of the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

LeBron speaks during the opening of the IPS. (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

According to Davis, the plan is to expand to second and fifth grade next year, and have a student body of 960—one of the largest in Akron—from first to eighth grade by 2022.

Along the way, the IPS will be home to other LJFF programs. Besides the aforementioned “I PROMISE, Too” class, LeBron has his 330 Ambassadors—a reference to Akron’s area code. These 23 high school students (the "arms and legs of LeBron", according to Campbell) watch over and tutor their younger counterparts after school.

Just as LeBron insists that he is "more than an athlete," so too does Campbell see the IPS as "more than a school."

“It’s ‘We Are Family,’” she adds, referencing LJFF’s slogan. “I mean, we wear it on our shirts. We live it day to day. It’s a family philosophy.

“Yeah, this is where you’re educated, but we truly believe that there’s things happening in our families’ lives and our children’s lives—and until we can help them figure those things out, education is the second priority. Because it’s survival for some of our children and families. This is home. It’s home away from home.”

If the students perform well in the years to come, the IPS could become “a nationally recognized model for urban and public school excellence,” Davis says. “We are letting people know that it is about true wraparound support, true family integration and true compassion.”

LeBron James I Promise School kids

Students show out on campus. (Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation)

With the community behind LeBron, those days that he described as “empty,” with thoughts of no future ahead, faded away. He didn’t take the other road. He didn’t become a statistic.

Now, LeBron is returning the favor in his own way, by helping families who are struggling—like he and Gloria once did in Akron.

“Maybe they don’t become LeBron James on the basketball court—maybe some of them do,” Campbell says, “but they become the LeBron James of their passion and their dream of life.”

 

Spencer Davies is a veteran NBA writer based in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter.

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