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.
(Click Read More for the full story)