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Aug 09, 20185m read

LeBron Leads Change In His Hometown with the Opening of the I Promise School

By Ben Szurek

In the course of his long and illustrious career, LeBron James has earned four MVP Awards and three NBA championships (as well as the Finals MVP Award in each of those). For eight years in a row, from May 2011 to this very June, there has not been one NBA Finals without LeBron James at the center of the action. These accolades, considered alongside his seemingly unrivaled combination of talent, impact, and quick thinking, have placed him at the front of the debate over who is the greatest basketball player in NBA history. This, despite unceasing opposition from the likes of me: patrons of the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant camp who refuse to embrace the now nearly indisputable notion that LeBron is, in fact, the Greatest Of All Time.

This year, as LeBron moved deeper into his reign as King James of the court by making his ninth NBA Finals appearance in fifteen seasons, he also began to establish himself as an authority in the realms of politics and culture. This departure, as one might expect, inspired controversy. Following a February interview, in which he shared some choice words for President Donald Trump, LeBron faced the scorn of Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham, who instructed James to stick to basketball: “Shut up and dribble.” Last week, LeBron faced criticism from President Trump himself, who took to Twitter on Friday to swipe at James and CNN anchor Don Lemon.

Admittedly, Lemon’s interview of LeBron did feature another round of strong words aimed at the Commander-in-Chief. But the impetus for the interview had nothing to do with Trump, Twitter, or even basketball. Instead, LeBron went on air to discuss his latest project: the I Promise school for at-risk youth in Akron, Ohio.

The I Promise school, which opened its doors to 240 third- and fourth-graders last Monday, is the brainchild of Akron Public Schools and the LeBron James Family Foundation. The school goes above and beyond to provide support for elementary school students who have fallen behind their peers academically — a fact which makes them more at-risk of dropping out once they get to high school. As a fourth-grader in Akron, LeBron found himself in a very similar position.

Officially, the I Promise school is designated as a public school — not a private or a charter — so students receive the same benefits that many public school students do: free tuition, free school lunch, and free transportation on district buses. But LeBron’s students also get much more: free uniforms, free breakfast and snacks, and guaranteed tuition to the University of Akron upon graduation from high school. Students also get a free bicycle and helmet, which they can use to explore their home city, just like LeBron did when he was their age. The school also aims to support the students by supporting their families. All student families have access to a fully-stocked food pantry, and parents of students can receive career counseling and assistance completing their GED. Teachers, on the other hand, receive weekly professional development sessions and a suite of mental health services.

The wealth of benefits provided by the school aims to alleviate the economic pressures that might be causing these students to fall into the “at-risk” category. Academically, the school will employ pioneering educational practices that have found success at both the local and national levels. Longer school days and school terms spread more evenly throughout the year will provide structure and consistency that may be lacking at home. The school’s smaller class sizes will enable teachers to invest more of themselves in each student. Additionally, the school holds true to national trends by placing a greater emphasis on STEM classes and taking special consideration of social and emotional obstacles to learning. And all of that is to say nothing of the intangible benefits of having the greatest basketball player in history as the figurehead of the school.

As one might expect, the bounty of resources available to students and families will come at a cost — a significantly higher one than the average public school. Initial reports made it seem like LeBron would foot the bill himself — a false impression which might have caused some disappointment when secondary reports revealed that LeBron’s foundation will only fund about twenty percent of the school’s expenses. That leaves the Akron school district — and, therefore, Akron taxpayers — with a bill of $2 million this year, with an expected yearly total of $8 million by 2022. Those numbers seem very large, until you consider what that amounts to in price per student. The I Promise School will receive the same amount of taxpayer money for each one of its students: around $10,000. That number holds across the Akron public school system; students at the I Promise school will receive no more and no less than their peers. The extra benefits, however, are funded by the $2 million this year from the LeBron James Family Foundation and other contributors — an annual total they expect to maintain until the school reaches its target size.

This summary, again, minimizes LeBron’s importance in bringing this school to fruition. The I Promise school is the culmination of the I Promise network — a program targeting at-risk students in Akron that has been running since LeBron established his foundation in 2013. By LeBron’s intention, the school remains in the hands of Akron Public Schools; it does not belong to the basketball player, his foundation, or the other financial patrons. But the financial support from those outside sources lays the foundation for a sustainable future of helping and advancing the education of at-risk students in LeBron’s hometown.

As in his basketball career, LeBron’s involvement with the I Promise school has inspired debate. He has drawn criticism from not only President Trump, but also Bill O’Reilly. He has received praise from Melania Trump, Steph Curry, and Michelle Obama, to name a few. LeBron’s name has even made its way to an internet petition to appoint him as Secretary of Education, thereby ousting the often-criticized Betsy Devos — who, by contrast, made headlines a few weeks ago when one of her ten luxury yachts drifted away from its dock.

In a time that seems so staunchly divided as ours, when the loudest voices scream catastrophe at every turn, it can seem imperative to find big picture solutions to the issues that spread across the political landscape. The I Promise school provides no such solution. Rather, it implements a specific strategy that is well-tailored to a well-known area. As a result, it will change the lives of 240 students this school year. It hopes to make that 960 students by 2022.

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