When LeBron James found out that one child drops out of school every twenty-six seconds in America, he was determined to do something about it in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
He also had first-hand knowledge of why kids drop out as he grew up in poverty in the tough inner-city streets of Akron. His single mom struggled to find a regular job, and he missed a lot of the 4th grade due to the lack of transportation, and he also had to deal with both hunger and homelessness.
In 2018, he started the “I Promise School” in Akron, an experimental public school run by the Akron School Board, which seeks to help disadvantaged children finish school.
The “I Promise School” is open to children from all over Akron who rank in the lowest 25th percentile of the education system. It serves children, mainly at-risk youth, who have academic and personal issues and chooses students via an enrollment lottery system.
What makes the school unique is that it is STEM-focused, plus it has a holistic approach to education. The school addresses external issues affecting each child before entering the classroom. The kids get free breakfast every morning, transportation, free school supplies and more. For the parents and families, the school also assists with child care assistance, provides access to General Education Development (GED) classes and even operates a food pantry.
The premise is that with all these stressors removed from the child's day-to-day lives, they will focus on their school work.
The school opened its pilot year in 2018 with only 3rd and 4th-grade students, traditionally the most vulnerable of all student groups. It was quickly evident that the students and teachers had a huge mountain - not a hill - to climb - to comply with Ohio state academic guidelines.
The students must perform well on the Measure Academic Progress (MAP) standardized test, determining if a 3rd grader will move on to 4th. Almost all the students were reading and writing way below their grade levels and needed to make up a year - sometimes two years - worth of work in about eight months.
Family and community are big buzzwords on campus as well. Mottos like "Family: If you fail, we fail" remind students that they won't be alone when meeting academic and life challenges head-on.
Many of the children are dealing with massive and emotional childhood traumas, causing them to bully other children, get violent and act out, distracting and disrupting the class. But with determination and compassion, the teachers persevered, and the results of the standardized tests were so successful.
The school will be fully operational, catering to grades 1 to 8 by 2022. Though the global pandemic disrupted its 2nd year, the promise to help the children has not been broken, and continues to drive the teachers, students and families forward and succeed.
Directed by: Marc Levin