Last week, President Trump scoffed—albeit passive aggressively—at basketball icon LeBron James’ intelligence in a tweet, stating, “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon,” Mr. Trump wrote, “He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!” But it looks like LeBron is the one taking Trump to school.
In the same week, LeBron announced the opening of his I Promise School. It is open to 240 low-income, at-risk third- and fourth-grade students in his hometown of Akron, in northeast Ohio. Each year, the school will add grades, expanding to first through eighth grades by 2022.
I Promise is a public-private partnership between the Akron School District and the LeBron James Family Foundation, a unique model that exemplifies LeBron’s exceptional abilities to see the bigger picture in the role education plays in community development.
The new school is open for more days than the traditional school year, provides parents with job placement services, has a food bank on site, gives each kid a free bicycle and helmet, guarantees college tuition for every student who graduates and offers social and emotional support and other wrap-around services, something researchers and practitioners recognize as important. The school accounts for and addresses the structural discrimination that has long hurt black families—and black school districts. In a way, by connecting social assistances to the school, I Promise is providing wraparound services for the entire district.
Amplifying the school’s offerings so far beyond the curriculum certainly isn’t conventional, but LeBron is deliberately stepping out-of-bounds, and kudos to him for that.
“Everything these kids are going through—the drugs, the violence, the guns, everything they’re going through as kids, I know,” said LeBron, the son of a single parent, during his remarks at the school opening. “For me to be in the position where I have the resources, the finance, the people, the structure and the city around me—why not?”
There have been other celebrities who’ve opened charter schools in the past, such as former basketball player, now sports analyst Jalen Rose; entertainment mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs; former tennis standout Andre Agassi; and rapper Pitbull, to name a few. Those who see opening a school as a means of giving back, like LeBron, have also leveraged charter school legislation to do so, to the applause of education reformers.
Charters, which are publicly financed but independently managed, give founders the freedom to do more than what a traditional school may provide. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the launch of I Promise spurred comparisons with the charter and education-reform movements, which prize school choice, voucher systems and competition.
“[T]he fact that this school opened only because of the good graces of a very wealthy, civic-minded athlete underscores the continuing problem with education funding in this country,” wrote education writer Valerie Strauss in her blog for the Washington Post. She gives him props for situating his school within the public school district, as opposed to launching a charter, but argues that this isn’t how civic institutions should be run. “America’s public schools should not have to depend on any wealthy individual or private entity to be sustained or improved.”
Reform advocate and writer Robert Pondisco replied to Strauss’ column with this short-sighted tweet: “As ever, no one asks ‘What about the other kids?’ when white parents move to affluent towns, or pull their kids out of zoned district schools. But it’s a problem when poor black and brown parents want something better — and when someone tries to offer it.”
It’s clear that LeBron has done his homework. His school offers a considered response to criticisms that have been levied against charter schools—that they impose what outsiders believe black kids need to learn, sidestep structural inequality, reduce the number of experienced black teachers and purposely erode locals’ voting power on school boards.
First, LeBron is a son of Akron. Local communities have learned to be wary when outsider charter-management companies come in executing reform without asking what the neighborhood needs. That is not the case here.
Instead of working to disrupt the district—a purpose of many charter leaders—LeBron is working with the Akron public school district, which still has oversight of I Promise. If the effort doesn’t pan out, it’s the local district, not an outside entity, that can shut the school down. I Promise acknowledges that factors outside of school significantly influence student outcomes, and addresses the hurdles of student hunger, family unemployment and school transportation—issues that many reform advocates have considered excuses that black leaders give for low performance. LeBron’s investments in people and community separate him from charter leaders who don’t build upon the inherent value in local people or their institutions.
Reform models predicated on competition and choice pit university-trained teachers against those trained in alternative teacher-training programs. Reform-minded organizations and foundations rage against labor unions; reform-leaning state departments of education battle local districts with school takeover and charter legislation. In contrast, LeBron’s new school and the district are on the same team. LeBron is not competing with the district; he’s adding resources and value to existing people and systems.
If education reformers really want to step up their game, they can pivot and embrace a model of charters that look like I Promise. It’s one that I supported early on in the movement.
When I was the associate dean at the University of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, I also managed the first charter school, Pierre A. Capdau School, under Louisiana’s Recovery School District legislation. That was the law that gave non-profit organizations an opportunity to turn around a school that was failing under the auspices of the New Orleans public school district. Pierre A. Capdau was located within a few minutes’ drive from the college campus.
It made complete sense for a university that had a college of education, with researchers, student teachers and other support, to help K-12 schools that were in the same neighborhood. Researchers can help practitioners use data to identify problems and trends. Student teachers can provide an extra hand to working professionals while earning their degree. The university libraries, sporting and cultural events as well as academic programs offer resources a local school can use. When my university president agreed to take on a charter school, the original intent was to deploy the college of education’s faculty and students to help the school update its teaching practices and management strategies and modernize its technology.
The original agreement between the university and the state department of education stated that after five years, we were to report what we learned and give the school back to the New Orleans school district. That agreement was built upon the belief that bureaucracy limited schools’ abilities to do those things, and charters gave districts the ability to try new approaches. But in practice, my team and I trusted local school leaders and the public school district to improve their schools—with support and resources from anchor institutions like ours. Unfortunately, education reform post-Katrina discouraged charter managers from returning schools back to the district, preventing partnerships like LeBron’s I Promise. Last month, oversight of New Orleans charter schools returned to the district in a unique arrangement, but charter leaders still manage the schools.
LeBron is an anchor institution, but as an individual he can’t necessarily help every school. But we do have universities, banks, hospitals and other organizations that are deeply rooted in cities but are disconnected from the schools next door. No, we can’t and shouldn’t rely on the wealthiest individuals to manage civic institutions. We need more reforms that bring existing resources and establishments together to build up local school districts, not “disrupt” them like many reformers like to do.
Sure, outside investments can certainly help. But true community development assumes strength already exists, it just needs investment and support. By conceding authority to the local district, LeBron James’ school is helping the community heal itself. He is bringing Akron together by acknowledging that authentic reform doesn’t rain down; it comes up from the community.
LeBron is so much more than a basketball player. He’s a teacher, giving the rest of us a few important lessons on how to get involved in education reform and community development — chiefly, by not separating the two.