LeBron James understands that 90 percent of American children and adolescents are enrolled in public schools. He knows that if you want to support the education of America’s poorest children, you’ll have to do it by improving the experiences of students and teachers in the public schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods. Erica Green’s NY Times report on LeBron James’ school in Akron, Ohio, his hometown, is inspiring and measured. It isn’t the story of some kind of one-year, impossible school turnaround, the kind we’ve been led to expect by federal laws and programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Instead it is the bottom-up story of someone who himself experienced educational failure as a young child, figuring out a way to give back.
Now a star in the NBA, LeBron James missed 83 days of school in the fourth grade. He understands that school improvement requires a lot of support. He knows that expectations for improved academic prowess must be incremental, the timeline for measuring improvement reasonable, and acknowledgement for even small successes consistent. Green describes Nataylia Henry, “a fourth-grader (who) missed more than 50 days of school last year because she said she would rather sleep than face bullies at school. This year, her overall attendance rate is 80 percent.” While some school reformers would call a school a failure if this student’s attendance didn’t increase more rapidly, this school celebrates the student’s improvement.
LeBron James’ I Promise School is an Akron City Schools public school; James chose not to underwrite a charter school: “The school’s $2 million budget is funded by the district, roughly the same amount per pupil that it spends in other schools. But Mr. James’s foundation has provided about $600,000 in financial support for additional teaching staff to help reduce class sizes, and an additional hour of after-school programming and tutors.”
James’ vision was for a school to serve young students facing the kind of challenges he faced as a kid. The school is selective: To qualify for the lottery, a student must have been among the school district’s lowest scorers on standardized tests. Nevertheless, the children are making what District officials view as good progress on the Measures of Academic Progress or MAP test: “In reading, where both (third and fourth grade) classes had scored in the lowest, or first percentile, third graders moved to the ninth percentile, and fourth graders to the 16th. In math, third graders jumped from the lowest percentile to the 18th, while fourth graders moved from the second percentile to the 30th. The 90 percent of I Promise students who met their goals exceeded the 70 percent of students districtwide, and scored in the 99th growth percentile of the evaluation association’s school norms, which the district said showed that students’ test scores increased at a higher rate than 99 out of 100 schools nationally.”
Green reports that nobody knows if this kind of test score growth on the Measures of Academic Progress can be sustained. Even though standardized test scores measure only a fraction of what students need from school, it is encouraging to see students making progress as measured by the tests society now uses as the yardstick for student achievement. But, as Green points out, “The students have a long way to go to even join the middle of the pack. And time will tell whether the gains are sustainable and how they stack up against rigorous state standardized tests at the end of the year. To some extent, the excitement surrounding the students’ progress illustrates a somber reality in urban education, where big hopes hinge on small victories.”
Perhaps more important, the students are enjoying school and feeling supported. One student told the reporter, “We get to have fun, and have opportunities that other kids don’t have.” Anther student explained: “One time, LeBron wrote us a letter, and I knew it was real because I saw the paper was signed in pen… That encouraged me.” The school emphasizes students’ social and emotional needs: “The school’s culture is built on ‘Habits of Promise’—perseverance, perpetual learning, problem solving, partnering and perspective…. The slogan ‘We are Family’ is emblazoned on walls and T-shirts.”
The school is designed to offer strong support for parents and families. In addition to an extensive food pantry, “Mr. James’s foundation covers the cost of all expenses in the school’s family resource enter, which provides parents with G.E.D. preparation, work advice, health and legal services,and even a quarterly barbershop.” Green profiles a mother, now enrolled in G.E.D. preparation who credits the school with giving her hope: “It took me coming here to realize what family even is… When I come here every day, I know it’s going to be O.K.”
LeBron James very simply explains why he and his foundation are supporting this public school: ” I had the vision of wanting to give back to my community.” And he credits the educators who work with the children and their families every day: “Half the battle is trying to engage them and show that there’s always going to be somebody looking out for them.”