LeBron James’ new school for at-risk kids features food pantries and free bikes

“I promise” you a future and a fair chance
“I promise” you a future and a fair chance
Image: AP Photo / Phil Long
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LeBron James returned to Ohio this week—but not to play for his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This time, he was back to welcome the inaugural class of the I Promise school, a public, non-charter school for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio. James helped create the school via his foundation, the LeBron James Family Foundation, in partnership with Akron Public Schools. The school opened earlier this week to a group of 240 third- and fourth-grade students; by 2022, it is expected to accommodate children in first through eighth grades.

James was motivated to launch the school thanks to his own experience growing up as an inner-city kid in Ohio. As James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, part of the reason the school is beginning with kids in third- and fourth-grade is because that’s when he believes kids begin to succumb to chronic absenteeism and outside pressures. “In the fourth grade, I missed 80 days of school,” he told Nichols.

James’ personal experiences have informed the unique features of the I Promise school, which not only aims to provide students with quality academic classes but to provide them with a holistic education—one that addresses the realities of the socioeconomic factors that make at-risk students more likely to drop out of school. Here are just a few of the things that set James’ school apart.

Free tuition for everyone

At the I Promise school, tuition is free for all students, who were randomly selected among all Akron public school students between one to two years behind their peers in reading. Students get free uniforms, free meals and snacks during the school day, and free transportation to school. Every kid also gets a free bicycle and helmet, as James has said that having access to his own set of wheels gave him a way to escape from dangerous parts of his neighborhood and the freedom to explore during his childhood. And in a nod to the realities of the way schoolwork gets done in the digital age, every kid gets a free Chromebook, too.

Food pantries and job training for parents

Kids growing up in poor or low-income environments are more likely to face adverse conditions like homelessness, food insecurity, absentee parents, domestic violence, or drug abuse–all of which expose kids to what’s known as “toxic stress.” If a child is exposed to severe stress over time, and if that stress isn’t buffered by supportive relationships, their socio-emotional and brain development may wind up stunted.

In an effort to mitigate such stressors, the I Promise school offers a food pantry for the families of students at the school, as well as GEDs and job placement services for parents. Families who need help finding housing can get assistance at the school, too.

Training and counseling for teachers

Investing in kids means investing in teachers, too. As the Los Angeles Times explains:

To truly provide emotional and psychological services for at-risk children and their families requires well-trained and supported teachers. The I Promise School gives teachers access to psychological services. Every Wednesday afternoon will be reserved for career development. James even hired a personal trainer to work with teachers who want a guided workout.

Solving summer

As the New York Times has noted in the past, many low-income parents can’t afford to send their kids to summer camp—and since they have to work, they also can’t stay home with the kids themselves. Moreover, the achievement gap tends to widen during the summer months, as low-income kids are less likely to have access to summer enrichment programs that will help them build on—or at least hang onto—what they learned during the school year.

To solve the problem, the I Promise school features an extended school year, with class in session from July 30 to May 17. “This extended school year will eliminate the summer slide, when students tend to lose a lot of what they have learned,”  Keith Liechty-Clifford, coordinator of school improvement for Akron Public Schools, tells the local paper West Side Leader. The Los Angeles Times notes that the school will have a seven-week summer program, too.

Free college education

Research has shown (pdf) that parental expectations have a direct relationship with students’ school performances. The power of high expectations apply to other caregivers or important structures in the child’s life, including teachers and a school. In the case of the I Promise school, students make a promise to strive towards high school graduation—and if they graduate from the program, their tuition to the University of Akron is paid for.

The upshot

In dealing with the many stressors that could push a child to quit school, and in providing support, not just for students, but also their families and teachers, the I Promise school is part of a growing educational movement that aims to close the achievement gap by extending its purview outside the boundaries of the classroom. As SB Nation notes, in the US, KIPP charter schools and Rocketship Public Schools, another charter program, take similar approaches in educating low-income students. But thanks to James’ celebrity, his school may offer particular inspiration to public educators across the nation.

“We are going to be that groundbreaking school that will be a nationally recognized model for urban and public school excellence,” Brandi Davis, the school, principal, told the Los Angeles Times. “We are letting people know that it is about true wraparound support. True family integration, true compassion.”