Basketball star Lebron James, who briefly split the Internet asunder with his recent choice to depart the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers, has made sure to leave something behind in Ohio: a public school for at-risk students.
James knows what it’s like to be an at-risk student himself. As a fourth grader, he says, he missed 83 days of school while he and his mother moved from one couch or spare room to the next. He credits mentors, some of whom he met at school, with a turnaround that helped him attend every day of fifth grade — which was also the first year he played organized basketball.
Now, 240 third- and fourth-graders will make up the inaugural class at the I Promise School, which opened this week in James’ hometown of Akron, Ohio.
The unusual school is a public school formed in collaboration between James’ philanthropic foundation and Akron Public Schools. Its out-of-the-box offerings include a long school day (eight hours); a "support circle" for students after lunch; and GED courses and job placement for parents. All are driven by James’ mission to help kids overcome what he faced as a low-income student in Akron, he says.
James, who has won three NBA championships and four league-MVPs, called the school opening the greatest moment of his career.
“Walking these hallways and seeing, when I was driving here, just the streets that I walked, some of the stores are still up when I was growing up,” he told ESPN. “It's a moment I'll never forget — and hopefully the kids, starting with the 240 kids that we have going in here right now starting today, will never forget it, either.”
Here's everything you need to know about Lebron James' I Promise School in Akron, Ohio.
How to Get Into Lebron James' I Promise School
The school selected area students from among those who trail their peers by a year or two in academic performance. “We did a random selection of all students who met that criteria, and got to make these awesome phone calls to parents and say, ‘How would you like to be part of something different, the I Promise School,’” Keith Liechty, the Akron Public Schools’ liaison to James’ foundation, told USA Today.
The school is launching with third- and fourth-graders, but plans to add grades each year until it houses first through eighth grade in 2022.
What's Special About Lebron James' I Promise School?
Forty-three staffers will help run the I Promise School — including not just teachers but also a principal, assistant principal, four intervention specialists, plus a tutor, English as a second language teacher, music instructor, and gym teacher, USA Today reports. Classrooms will hold 20 students per teacher.
The most unique feature of the school may be the most ordinary: it’s a traditional public school. Celebrities often back charter schools, like the Harlem academy founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs and the Detroit charter named after former NBA player and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. Or they open unorthodox private schools — think Elon Musk’s 40-student school, situated in a conference room at Space X, where kids play with flamethrowers.
James made a point of giving Akron a new public school. “It's not a charter school, it's not a private school, it's a real-life school in my hometown,” he told ESPN. “And this is pretty cool.”
That said, the school is far from traditional. Its lengthy school day runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., along with an extended school year that runs from July through May. During a seven-week summer session, the school will provide STEM-based camps. Students will spend time each day on social-emotional learning, and participate in a “supportive circle” after lunch aimed at helping them refocus on work, Cleveland.com reports.
Nutrition is also central to the school’s mission. Every day students will receive free breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks. They will have access to a fitness trainer. James says that, as a kid, he used his bicycle to explore different neighborhoods of Akron — so he gave one to every incoming student.
Since the school considers education to be not just for the pupil but for the whole family, it will offer GED classes and job placement assistance for parents and guardians. “It is about true wrap-around support, true family integration and true compassion,” Brandi Davis, I Promise principal and Akron native, told USA Today.
Students get one other notable benefit: If they successfully complete the school program and graduate from high school, James will cover their full tuition at the local public college, University of Akron.
The Akron school district expects to spend a total of $8.1 million over the next five years for the I Promise school, according to a report in Akron's Beacon Journal. James' family foundation will cover the costs of other extra school features, and with its partners has already contributed $2 million for building upgrades, extra staffing and other needs, the paper notes.
James Praised by Celebrities and NBA Players
Stephen Curry, Warriors guard and on-court rival of James, greeted the opening of the school with a two-word exclamation: “Freaking Amazing!”
Fellow NBA superstars Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade lauded the opening. “Proud of you for chasing your dreams and in turn, giving the opportunity to hundreds of kids to realize theirs,” Paul tweeted.
Other prominent figures weighed in as well. The musician Common tweeted a video of a young male student marveling at the school’s interior. “The look on this boys face as he enters the school says it all,” Common wrote. “Love.”
And CNN contributor Ana Navarro noted, “The same guy some folks suggested should, ‘shut-up and dribble.’ Instead, he put-up and gave back to at-risk kids.”
James, meanwhile, doesn't seem to be giving up on his Ohio roots.
“I don't have a ceiling to how much I can improve my game,” he told ESPN. “And we as a foundation don't have a ceiling on how much we can improve our community, to a point where we have a school.”