The Lebron James Family Foundation, led by arguably the best basketball player in the world, Lebron James, opened an elementary school in his hometown of Akron Ohio. If you have accessed your social media feeds or watched the local news this week you know that critics, celebrities, and former First Lady Michelle Obama, are praising Lebron James opening in his hometown. Starting with an initial enrollment of 240 third and fourth graders, the I Promise School, officially opened its doors on Monday, July 30th, and is already being dubbed as “the [school] first of its kind.” Operating as the 29th public school in the Akron Public Schools district, Lebron and his foundation have worked with district officials and other corporate partners to provide a comprehensive educational experience address three key areas impacting Akron youth: academic performance, socio-emotional issues, and family involvement. Although the I Promise School is an Akron Public School, it does not operate as a traditional public school. It boasts a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) focused curriculum, provides each student a free bicycle (and helmet), uniforms, guaranteed tuition to the University of Akron for graduates, free transportation, two free meals and snacks, GED and job placement programs/services for parents and a food pantry for families. As a product of Akron Public Schools, Lebron did not receive any of the resources that he now seeks to provide the students of I Promise in his attempt to address as many challenging aspects of students’ lives, especially students who have been identified as unsuccessful by schools. I Promise is geared toward reducing the dropout rates in Akron Public Schools, as it opens its doors only to students who have received a failing grade in student performance.
In a noble effort, Lebron James made true on his promise to give back to his community by organizing an attempt to create a school that meets many of the needs of young people and their families in the city of Akron, whose School District received a failing grade on its report card for progress in regards to student growth based on past performance, gap closing for most vulnerable populations, graduation rate and college and workforce preparedness. Like many public schools across the country, Akron’s public schools have experienced diminishing budgets and as a result, decided to consolidate a number of schools and reduce staff in the district by 93 positions. Lebron’s I Promise School comes at an opportune time and shows commitment to quality education while meeting the needs of students and families.
While we celebrate Lebron’s commitment to education in his hometown, as educators, it is essential for us to critically discuss how his philanthropic endeavors in education will impact the lives of young people and in turn the community. At first glance, the I Promise School seems like an ideal public school with resources that genuinely meet the needs of students who have been pushed to the margins of society. Many parents will line up for an opportunity to send their child to a school that boasts a STEM-focused curriculum and that guarantees tuition at an institution of higher education. While we argue impressive STEM and incentive programs are very valuable to young people, we cannot discount the importance of culturally relevant and critical pedagogical philosophies/instructional approaches to delivering the content to students and families. In reports about the I Promise School, we have not learned any specific details about the pedagogy or instructional practices that will be employed to support the achievement of students. Gloria Ladson-Billings, a lead scholar in Urban Education, stated “a school is a building. It is irrelevant without exceptional culturally relevant teachers.” Regardless of what incentives are provided students, instruction and pedagogy are the core of teaching and learning. The main goal of an exceptional school should be to provide relevant instruction that is tailored to the culture and realities of students and to arm young people with the skills to be critical of systems and the world around them. The hope of an exceptional school is that the young people who ascend to graduate are those who work toward dismantling unjust systems that keep marginalized groups marginalized.
Society knows schools to be the place where young people learn and develop skills that will prepare them for the world and assume that all schools to be great places where students are happy have agency, are provided equal opportunities and have access to quality materials. This is not the reality for most public schools across the nation. Funding for schools continues to decrease and students, especially students of color, are being engaged through a curriculum that reflects their full being and realities. As educators, we share the same excitement for the I Promise School and its potential as many critics, but it is also important to be critical of the of the way in which they engage and empower their students.
Certainly we want to encourage other celebrities and those with the financial and social capital to focus on the reform and transformation of educational experiences for traditionally underserved and marginalized populations, but we must emphasize the importance of employing a philosophy of teaching and learning that is centered in cultural relevance and social justice. Further, we there must be experienced and effective educators on the boards of foundations that launch educational initiatives. The I Promise School’s partnership with Akron Public Schools presumes some level of collaboration with principals and educators who serve as members of the foundation’s elementary and secondary advisory boards, known as the LABs. Incorporating perspectives and expertise from various industries and professions, I Promise looks to its “community” division of the LAB, which consists of journalists, university administrators and executives from companies like JP Morgan Chase & Co. and the J.M. Smuckers Company. According to the I Promise website these members were selected based on their love of and commitment to children and Akron, however, the language of the LAB page causes some pause as this predominantly corporate-comprised group is described as the “driving force that continues to steer I Promise in the right direction.” Creating dialogue and collaboration across industries and professions is necessary to obtain support and advocacy from key stakeholders within various sectors of a community. However, heeding cautionary advice from educational historians and political analysts such as Diane Ravitch, the pedagogical expertise of the educators on school/district advisory boards must be deemed just as valuable a contribution, if not more, as the financial capital, political savvy and marketing strategies of the corporate members.
From where we sit, the I Promise approach seems to address the needs necessary to provide the type of holistic educational experience that attempts to bridge students’ home life with their educational experiences. The partnership with Akron Public Schools and incentive for students to continue their education through college in Akron pushes back against traditional messages to students in low-income areas. These messages often frame low-income areas as the problem, encouraging students to utilize education as a means to get out. Through I Promise Lebron and his foundation serves as an example of how education and schools can be sites and tools of supporting, uplifting and (potentially) transforming a community. However, as educators and citizens, we can praise and support Lebron for “putting his money where his mouth is” while still asking questions that hopefully push him and his team to think about the nuances inherent in the subliminal messages of the curricular designs, instructional practices, and policies and procedures around behavior management. These messages hold strong and positive implications for how students will come to view themselves as they receive messages in regards to their intelligence and acceptable forms of knowledge production and expression and have the potential to shift a paradigm in education.