It’s Father’s Walk Day at LeBron James’ I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. A steady stream of dads and children pour in and out of the school’s large glass doors. Interestingly, the stream seems to part at the large LeBron James Family Foundation seal centered in the concrete walkway. Kids are reluctant to step on it. They point it out to their fathers, who step around it with respect. No one is told not to step on it. They don’t because they understand that it’s sacred ground.
The walls of the school’s entranceway are lined with a bold and artful display of basketball shoes. It’s a striking entrance that leaves no doubt that you’re not standing in just any public school. On Father’s Walk Day, dads and kids linger and study the sneakers. Eventually, a group of men crowds into the foyer to solemnly swear an oath of their own: “I promise to be a positive role model; hold my child accountable; help my child with their homework; communicate with my child’s teachers; listen to my child … And above all else, support my child in reaching their dreams.”
It’s striking to consider these are words LeBron, now a proud father himself, never heard his own dad say. Now, kids listen to their dads intone their promise. Accountability is baked into the moment.
LeBron’s foundation partnered with Akron Public Schools and local businesses to open the I Promise School (IPS for short) to third and fourth graders in July. The school currently boasts a few hundred students. The kids face economic adversity or have low reading scores and they are now part of a bold experiment in education. Is Lebron strong enough to squeeze the academic gap? Probably not alone, but there’s a team in place. IPS is staffed with educators interested in trying something new. There is a sense that IPS is not just an experiment, but a way of solving educational problems.
The focus on third and fourth grades is not arbitrary. Studies show that kids with poor reading scores in third grade are more likely to fall further behind later in their academic career. By taking on third and fourth graders, IPS has situated itself to be an educational proving ground. The idea is to use state mandated testing after 4th grade to prove the IPS hypothesis works.
In other words, IPS wants to have a clear answer when people ask if it has been a success. That answer? “Scoreboard.”
But what would it take for this bold, GOAT-endorsed experiment to work? The media might focus on the perks kids get — free uniforms, free bikes, and occasional gifts from LeBron — but all that stuff is beside the point. IPS is taking a holistic family-first approach to education. The hypothesis being tested is that family-involvement at school helps at-risk kids succeed academically. That means IPS is for kids and also for their parents.
The IPS building is a large red brick brick structure with an air of institutional efficiency that belies its past as a regional McDonald’s headquarters. It would look like a school in anytown America if it weren’t for the messages, rendered in bold, white, freestanding letters that border the pick up and drop off area. On the south side of the building: “I PROMISE.” On the north side: “WE ARE FAMILY.” The font makes it clear that these are not banalities. These statements of purpose.
The public school is located at the edge of Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood. It’s tucked in behind a couple of car dealerships and surrounded by lower middle-class neighborhood streets lined with single-family bungalows in various states of repair. Over the past few years, Highland Square has been reinventing itself as the “cool part of town” and IPS fits the neighborhood perfectly. But among the hip coffee shops and vintage stores are a few ragged strip malls, bars and eateries. Faded facades speak to 30 years of lean times in Akron, where a tire and plastics boom went bust.
LeBron James grew up in Akron during those lean times. His father was a criminal and absent from his life. That left his mother Gloria supporting herself and her son. Work was hard to find and the pair moved from place to place struggling to find stability. They survived largely thanks to help from their community.
Eventually, Gloria sent her son to live at the home of local youth football coach Frank Walker, knowing he’d thrive with a firm foundation. With Walker’s encouragement, LeBron started playing basketball in fifth grade. He was, to put it lightly, good.
LeBron’s backstory is sewn into the very walls of IPS, creating the aspiration and inspirational heart of the school. Many of the students are in the middle of tough childhoods. As they go to class, they’re reminded LeBron was once “just a kid from Akron” like themselves. This could be grating — all that personal branding — but it isn’t. LeBron is proud of Akron. Even when he’s left Ohio — there was the decision and now there’s the Laker contract — he’s always come back.
The dads on campus for Father’s Walk Day eventually join their children for breakfast. The morning meal is standard and given to kids daily free of charge. The dads hover behind kids nibbling on fruit and sipping juice. Some of the classrooms are dim and quiet, with soft music playing. Others are starting to bustle before the first morning bell.
In one classroom, Kafui “Quincy” Amissah stands beside his daughter Abigail. He watches her with a smile occasionally glancing down to the stroller in which his 9-month-old son babbles softly. Abigail is excited to eat breakfast with her dad in her third grade classroom. For his part, her dad is excited to have been invited.
“It’s interesting to see how things are done here,” Amissah says. “It’s a lot different from other schools.”
Amissah’s other children, who attend public schools elsewhere in the city are having a markedly different experience. And so was Abigail before she was admitted IPS. “Every kid has their own way of learning,” Amissah says. “And it wasn’t working for her in the other school. She wants to learn and play at the same time. Here, they do that. She’s doing a lot better.”
Amissah says that he wasn’t too worried about the hype surrounding what’s been largely portrayed in the media as a celebrity pet project. And Abigail reports that her siblings are excited she’s attending the school. No jealousy.
“The first day of school we started working on rollercoasters,” Abigail notes. “And we got to go to Cedar Point.” True to the “We Are Family” motto of IPS, Abigail’s entire family was invited to the local amusement park with her, free of charge and with transportation included. This isn’t just a nice thing — though it is a nice thing — this is integral to the IPS process. Involve parents. Win together.
“The school that she came from, there were times I’d walk in there and they would give me a hard time because I’m dad,” Amissah says. “The first time I walked in there the first question I was asked was ‘Are you and Mom still together?’ That stereotype of families not being together really gets under my skin, and to be asked that question? I didn’t appreciate that.”
IPS is completely different, he says. “The teachers are very welcoming you talk to them and they talk to you and they make you feel like you’re part of what’s going on around here.”
In the fourth grade wing, the bell rings and the morning announcements start over the speakers with the pledge of allegiance. Troy Parmer and his son, fourth grader Mekhi, stand and face the flag. IPS isn’t messing around with its promises. After the pledge, it’s the students turn to make their own daily oath. “I promise to go to school,” they say, “to do all of my homework; to listen to my teachers because they will help me learn; to ask questions and find answers … and above all else to finish school!”
Parmer, like Amissah, is floored by how welcoming IPS is to parents. “It’s a serious model and we take it seriously,” he says.
For Parmer, the promises are an extension of how deeply he’s been involved with his son up to this point. Both he and his son agree that all they needed was for Mekhi to get just a little more help. “We’ve been doing this model before the model was a promise,” he says. “Does that make sense?”
But it’s not just the students and parents who are asked to make promises. The staff and the partners have promises too. The core of those promises are essentially to show up and give all they can for the families.
That help isn’t just superficial, it’s foundational. Consider the fact that school days are from 9 am to to 5 pm. That way parents can work without the pressure of finding after school care for their kids. The school year at IPS also lasts through the summer, including a seven weeks of free summer camps for students. This, again, is partly to combat the summer slide — when kids, specifically lower income kids, stop practicing and fall behind — but is also helpful for working parents relieved of the cost of summer care for their kids.
But the true core of family help is found past the grand foyer in the family resource center. Here are rooms full of resources for parents. In one room, called the Happy Happy Room, there are shelves stacked with tubs of clothing. There are uniforms for the taking. There are winter hats and jackets. There is sport gear, socks and underwear. Parents need only come back and take what they need for their child.
Another room is stocked with school supplies for children, whose parents never have to buy them. Teachers aren’t on the hook to purchase extras either. The room hold everything from erasers to pens to stress balls.
The school also features a market, stocked with food staples. Parents who are struggling to provide food can simply grab a basket and take away beans, rice, pasta, produce, and protein. There’s no shame in coming to the market. That’s what it’s there for, so simply grab a shopping basket and take what you need.
The most memorable perk? IPS has a staff person who serves as a social issues concierge for parents, who can ask for assistance with just about anything. One mom, for instance, had achieved her bachelors degree in social work but fell behind in paying her loans. Because of her struggle with payments, she was unable to get her certificate and job in her field. Instead she worked at local convenience stores to make do. She went to IPS for help. They contacted her college and set up a payment plan in exchange for the release of her certificate.
As amazing as all this sounds, there is some angst around IPS. It is, after all, an experiment. Is it scalable? And what happens if it fails?
“For the past year with the public school system trying to justify some our decisions I’ve been holding strong that we should take a leap of faith,” explains IPS instructional liaison Nicole Hassani who acts as the bridge between Akron Public Schools and the Lebron James Family Foundation. “There’s a lot of research to support what we’re doing but no one has actually done it.”
Hassani is adamant that the progress the school has seen in the first seven weeks of the school year shows that program will be successful. She points to the fact that kids at IPS are supported emotionally, psychologically and physically. “The leap of faith is, when you get the student to the point of feeling emotionally and physically safe, the learning is easy,” she says. “It’s not just whimsical. There is research.”
While that may be, there’s still a question of scale. As the years progress, the school will add two grade levels on either side of the core. In the 2019 to 2020 school year, for example, the school will add second and fifth grade. The next school year, first and sixth. But the question remains: Can the IPS program be duplicated in other school districts?
It’s important to note that, as a public school, IPS receives the same amount of funding as other schools in the Akron district. Taxpayers aren’t on the hook for any additional funds. To fill the gaps, the LeBron James Family Foundation has called on private business and charitable partners. One of those partners is based Peg’s Foundation based in Hudson, Ohio, one town over from Akron. The foundation has contributed $2.5 million dollars over 5 years to ensure the IPS social supports are available for families.
“One of the things that attracted us to this opportunity is that it could grow,” explains foundation President Rick Kellar. “A lot of our previous education grant making didn’t have that change-the-world, transformational impact.”
Kellar suggests that one of the main reasons Peg’s Foundation got involved was because they were convinced that the IPS model was replicable. He notes that the IPS model absolutely relies on family supports. There are families everywhere.
“Even If the cost per student is high at IPS, we may find the efficient frontier,” Kellar explains. “We may find the best way to spend the right amount of money to change the outcome for this at risk group of kids. And we just can’t leave them behind anymore.”
As he talks about IPS, though, it’s clear that part of Kellar’s passion is inspired by his awe of LeBron. He’s excited to be on a team with the GOAT. So what about those places that don’t have a LeBron to call their own?
“Look, it’s really cool to be on a team with LeBron,” Kellar says. “But I would also say that maybe LeBron is a national hero for this. This inspiration is replicable. Other athletes and other celebrities in other districts can model this.”
There is a feeling in and out of the IPS halls that the people here are part of something special. Nobody takes it for granted. In fact, they promise to work to make sure IPS is something special. And they make that promise every day.