The Tylt

Should public schools do more than teach?

When Scout’s mother and grandmother took her to school one morning in the spring, they, for once, did not know what was in store. They were told to drop her off at the front desk but had no other details. No matter, they trusted the school’s staff completely.

Scout entered a room filled with student worksheets, classroom schedules and a few other waiting students. Moments later, the children stared up at a guest, a giant moving toward them. LeBron James walked through the door. They gasped and shrieked, just as anyone would in the presence of a legend. But to them, the basketball superstar was much more than that; he was family. 

Scout and her classmates each had the opportunity to ask a single question of Mr. LeBron James, as he was affectionately known within the halls of the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. Although countless curiosities surely flew through their minds, Scout was sure of what she would ask him: “Can I touch the ceiling?”

James, the muscular 6-foot-9 power forward of the Los Angeles Lakers, laughed. A man of his word, he scooped up Scout and lifted her to the ceiling tiles above.

For those closely watching the progress of James’ I Promise School, the question remains: Can he lift them all? When IPS first opened its doors in 2018, the teachers and staff felt ready to change the world. Through a lottery system, the school would become home to 240 third and fourth graders within the Akron Public School System, all of whom ranked in the bottom 25th percentile in the state in reading. On that first day, everyone – teachers, staff, students and parents – made a promise to one another. Students promised to finish school; teachers promised to love their students, families and one another; and parents promised to support their child in reaching their dreams.

This group of dreamers came together not only to fulfill these promises to one another and to themselves, but to create a new precedent within the world of public education – a goal set by many, but achieved by few. Through four years of asking questions about education at The Tylt, the struggle to get it right in America is clear: The achievement gap among underserved communities persists. The I Promise School, a joint venture between the Akron Public School System and the LeBron James Family Foundation, plans to reverse this paradigm.

When I first spoke with Michele Campbell, the Executive Director of the LJFF, it was a bright spring day both in Atlanta – my work-from-home location – and Akron, where Campbell was busy organizing the delivery of meals to students’ families a few weeks into the coronavirus stay-at-home orders. Akron public schools began virtual learning only a few days prior to our conversation. The staff at I Promise did not miss a beat, delivering taco Tuesday dinners to the doorstep of each student’s family.

Campbell recalled the moment when the idea for the I Promise School first sparked: “I remember saying to [James], ‘Well, I believe if we’re ever going to make a difference [in graduation rates], we need to open our own school so everyone at that school understands the philosophies and the foundation and what we’re trying to do,’ and he literally looked at me and said, ‘Then why aren’t you doing that? What are we waiting for?’”

Thus began a frenzy of what Campbell says is the hardest work she’s done in her life. Years later, the I Promise School welcomed its new family with a clear aim: to become a “nationally recognized model of urban and public school excellence.” Those inside the I Promise School know this excellence comes down to much more than the passing down of knowledge from teacher to student. As Scout’s grandmother, Kathleen Franick, put it in a separate phone conversation, “They address the whole person, not just one part of it labeled ‘education.’”

The “wraparound approach” featured in the I Promise School raises many questions about how public education ought to function. Can, and should, public schools act as social organizers within their communities?

The I Promise School firmly believes they should, and it does so on a daily basis. According to The Tylt’s data, many young people are leaning in the same direction. When asked if public schools should provide free lunches for students, 95 percent of people agreed, yes, they should. When asked if schools should provide things like free tampons or condoms to students, 97 and 85 percent voted yes once again, respectively.

A food bank, a laundry room, a Family Resource Center and more are all available to families that are part of the I Promise School. Students receive free uniforms, breakfast and lunch every day, and, eventually, tuition to the University of Akron. If there is a need a student, staff member or family member has, every effort is made to fulfill it. But to call these services amenities would be a disservice to the school. The motto for IPS is simple: “Everything is earned. Nothing is given.” These services are not offered as charity but as necessities for learning.

“With the resources that LeBron has at the I Promise School, they helped me get a lawyer to move into a better house for my kids. [My kids] are more happy, they’re comfortable,” Tana, the mother of Nate, a fourth-grader at I Promise, shared with me. “The school is awesome. It’s not like it’s just my son; they helped me and my family, too.”

This holistic approach to education is in the fabric of I Promise. T-shirts, walls and jackets all have the words “WE ARE FAMILY” printed in bold, “just-do-it” style letters. That means parents, grandparents, mentors, siblings, cousins and more: They all share a piece of the promise. As Nate’s mother explained, her son’s growth academically and behaviorally is infectious: “It spreads through the whole family.”

The students at I Promise come from a variety of backgrounds. Many have already experienced extreme trauma just eight or nine years into life. Some are caretakers for sick parents, others have lost family members to violence, and a few have witnessed relatives in jail. Each student walks the hall with their own story – and scars.

In the Quibi docuseries, “I PROMISE,” Nate shared a jarring memory with the filmmakers: A SWAT team swarmed his uncle’s house looking for drugs; he was there. In a separate story, Nate described how his father was murdered. He spoke matter-of-factly: “They stabbed him, they shot him and ran him over.”

With experiences like these in mind, it’s not hard to imagine why feeling safe at school is a crucial bridge to learning. As Angel Whorton, one of the I Promise School intervention specialists, explained: “I had a student who was absolutely homeless. They didn’t have a place to go.”

“I would contact the parent as much as I could through the day,” Whorton continued, “but while I’m teaching, we have the Family Resource Center to go and contact the parent and get them on a plan to see the needs that they have.”

The school holds no false notions about fixing all problems students encounter. Whorton admits having patience is a real challenge. “You do everything you can, and you want [the change] to happen immediately, but we know it can’t.” Nevertheless, IPS is guided by the belief that students’ lives outside of school do not remain outside of school. Learners bring their fears, anxieties and celebrations with them to class every day. It’s the goal of Whorton and other professionals at I Promise to help students work out of what they call “trauma brain” and into the “learning brain.” 

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As a member of the Akron Public School System, the I Promise School is subject to the same rules and regulations of the county and state as every other public school in the area. For any new school, this is nothing short of a challenge. For a school trying to make waves felt across the country, the decision to remain public is almost shocking.

“You’re working with a public system that’s done things the same way for many, many years,” Campbell explained. “They’re governed by the state; you’ve got all these different unions – the teacher’s union, a custodial union. When you want to create change, you have to bring all those people and get them to believe in it. You have to get them to have a leap of faith because we don’t have all the answers and we’re learning as we go.”

When the project first began, James could have gone the route of creating a specialty school. He could have created a private school or a charter school in order to work with greater flexibility, but Campbell says that was never an option for James. To create a movement in education, you have to operate within the same confines as everyone else. Campbell herself admits, “It has been very, very difficult, and in the same breath, I will say very, very rewarding.”

The I Promise School is unlike other public schools for a variety of reasons, but one stands out: its support from the LeBron James Family Foundation. In addition to helping students throughout the Akron area through education and co-curricular activities, the LJFF provides roughly $600,000 of budgetary support for the I Promise School, which helps reduce class size, support teaching staff and more, according to The New York Times.

It’s no secret that many Americans feel teachers should have more resources at their disposal. In 2019, The Tylt asked its audience whether teachers should be paid more; a whopping 98.7 percent agreed, yes, they should. Unlivable salaries, limited resources and unmanageable class sizes led to waves of teacher strikes across the country from 2018 to 2019. Meanwhile, faculty at the I Promise School, such as third-grade teacher Molly Donahue, describe their position as a “dream job.”

The LJFF stepped up to fill gaps in this particular public school’s budget. According to Campbell, the foundation also helped channel pre-existing community resources into one place.

“[This real change] is happening not because of one man and not because of one foundation,” she told me when I asked how other school districts could hope to replicate the I Promise School’s model. “There are so many community partners and our family members who are believing in this magic, and that’s how it can happen [across the country].”

On the I Promise School’s website, details of family wraparound supports include the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, the Akron Food Bank, community legal aid, Project Learn (a local GED program), local counseling and more. The staff at the LJFF concedes it does take a leader to unite these resources and services under the umbrella of a school, but it does not take money. 

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These wraparound services channeled by the LJFF into the I Promise School embody the school’s approach to learning: Performance is often a reflection of social and emotional wellbeing.

Every morning, after students collect their breakfast, they sit down with their class for a “circle.” This is a sacred time where students can share anything on their minds. What happened at home last night? Why are they frustrated with a teacher? Who won the basketball game? For Nate, this is his favorite part of the day.

“The morning circle is fun for me because we get to experience how everybody’s day was at home and that night, and then we can talk about how the day’s going at school and stuff,” he explained over a phone call.

Nate also shared his least favorite part of the day: recess. He told me he doesn’t like the drama of the playground – kids get into arguments and sometimes fight, he says – but on days when a problem arises, at least he has an outlet: “Afternoon circle is good because we get to tell the teacher how stuff happened, and we don’t just get in trouble right away. We can explain what happened and the reasons that the fight and stuff started.”

Nate and his fellow students have the power to speak up – a transformative experience for anyone, but particularly at the age of eight or nine. As the I Promise staff says, the circles set the tone of school as a space where students can share their feelings and experiences, no matter what they are.

“We use that social-emotional piece to help them, because a lot of them are just missing how to regulate their feelings, how to understand how they’re feeling,” Donahue said. “And if they don’t understand that, then we can’t ask them to learn, yet.”

The I Promise School has a longer school day than most public schools. Breakfast begins at 8:45 a.m. and the dismissal bell rings at 5:00 p.m. Not only does an extended day help working parents, but it also means more instructional time to bake in crucial pieces – like the morning and afternoon circles.

Whorton, whose job is to work on curriculum and behavior in smaller groups, believes giving students the power to call their own circle is vital.

“If the kids have a problem at home, if they have a problem in school, if they have a problem with me, I give them the power to use their voice so they can come to me,” she shared. “I give them my trust and they can say, ‘Mrs. Whorton, you did something that embarrassed me, so I need you not to do that again,’ and they can call me out.”

The circle is its own family unit. There are moments of anger and frustration, but also snapshots of love and forgiveness. In Whorton’s experience, these circles are often the first time many students feel that it is “okay” to be upset. “But how you respond to being upset is what you need to grow from,” Whorton added. “Every moment is a learning opportunity. So yesterday, you threw a chair; today, you just stood up and banged your hand on a desk – that’s growth.”

In other schools, throwing a chair or flipping a desk might warrant suspension, but the I Promise School treats discipline with an untraditional approach. When students behave in a way that might get them expelled or suspended at other schools, they are sent to the Family Training Center for guidance. There, Whorton and other professionals help students learn how to adjust their behaviors.

Students, however, are not the only visitors at the Family Training Center (also known as “Training Camp”); teachers will come to work out specific challenges with students, taking the time to heal those teacher-student relationships when something inevitably goes wrong, as it does in every single classroom across America.

Whorton says mending those relationships makes all the difference for both students and teachers: “That builds a relationship because now both of them become better. The teacher becomes better, I become better because now I know what to look for, and the kids begin to learn their triggers.”

Imagine a commotion in a classroom. A student acts out; they throw a chair, or they flip a desk. Even if these outbursts are commonplace, they are no less startling for other students or for teachers. Now, imagine a student in a safe space, surrounded by people who listen and remind the child how much they care. In this setting, a teacher can reconnect with a student and admit freely, "You made me nervous," or "I was afraid…." With the space to express such emotional complexities, and with a teacher open to ways to improve the situation, a student, perhaps for the first time in their life, has the chance to heal a relationship. As Whorton says, "To see that the teacher is willing to forgive the child, and they tell them ‘I want you here,’ and the student hears that and they believe that…it’s absolutely beautiful.”

This is not about taking things lightly; this is about changing the definition of public education. Teachers around the world have this same compassion, and many have the same desire for change, but rarely do they have the time or resources to act on it. At the I Promise School, they do. 

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Angel Whorton laughs with an I Promise School Student | Photo Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation

Before coming to the I Promise School, Nate had a few misconceptions. First, “I thought LeBron was going to be like principal or something,” which unfortunately for Nate, did not turn out to be the case. Second, “I didn’t think it was a good school because of my principal at my old school.” He later admitted, “They said I wouldn’t make it and stuff.”

Nate’s newest fear is going into the fifth grade. Will the lessons be too hard? Will he like his new teacher? The evolution of Nate’s greatest fear at school is in itself proof of his growth. Nate’s two close friends, Dylan and Randall, are now part of his support system. Since learning to play the drums at school, Nate not only has another outlet for anger, but he is actively working toward the goal of playing the drums for his church. And with a new pair of glasses provided by the support of the I Promise School, Nate can see a new world in front of him.

As for Scout, her mom and grandma are amazed by how much her confidence has gone up since attending the I Promise School. In the “I PROMISE” docuseries, Scout shares her fears of other students getting mad or judging her at her old school. “I was just self-conscious of myself in every way,” she says. At the time, Scout lived with her grandparents and five cousins. Her mom, Rebekah McConnell, has epilepsy, and Scout could see her every Friday. A 9-year-old Scout tells the documentary crew that she “knows what to do if [her mom] has a seizure.”

Over the phone, Scout’s mom and grandmother shared how proud they are: Scout was recently elected to the school student council – an indicator of how her confidence and sense of community have grown since coming to the I Promise School. Now, she fantasizes about going to college, where she can’t wait to have at least four roommates.

Since its opening, the I Promise School has added a fifth-grade level, and it plans to add grade levels each year until it serves students from third through the eighth grade. As Whorton puts it, “We want to create powerful, strong, beautiful lifelong learners past and beyond the classroom,” which means welcoming as many students into the family as possible. It also means inspiring others around the country to do the same. Although currently conducting lessons, morning and afternoon circles and more via virtual classrooms due to nationwide school closures, McConnell and Franick are confident the staff will not miss a beat, praising them already for creating interactive scavenger hunts for kids to do around their homes just one week into online lessons.

Scout, for her part, is at least happy to see her friends – no small accomplishment itself – online. “When you hear her in the morning when she gets on Zoom,” Franick shared, overjoyed, “you hear this glee in her voice as each kid’s face appears.” However, Campbell believes the school will have to make up instructional time in some capacity. During our conversation, she tossed around ideas for school on Saturdays or Sundays, or making the school day even longer.

“I have no idea,” she shared, knowing the coronavirus pandemic is still evolving, “but I'm willing to explore all options because we are going to need to make up this missed time in the classroom, and I do not believe that online learning will [do] what we need for students who are already behind.” Nevertheless, each member of the staff I spoke with exuded confidence; they will persevere. They’ve done it before.

In the fall of 2018, I Promise School students took their first Measures of Academic Progress assessment, a state proficiency test which determines students’ ability to move to the next grade level in reading. A mere 20 weeks before the final MAP test in March, only three third-grade students had passed. IPS students were among the bottom 25th percentile in reading for the state of Ohio before attending IPS, meaning most were already a grade level or more behind. The fall assessment showed just how far they would have to climb.

By March 2019, the I Promise family was overwhelmed: 91 percent of IPS students met their goal on the MAP assessment. The “I PROMISE” documentary captures students shrieking and running through the halls, staff dancing in faculty rooms and James himself ecstatic upon learning the news over FaceTime. All had their hands raised, equally as overcome with pride as they were resolute to continue the approach to learning that made unprecedented growth a reality.

It’s not about one man; it’s not even about one hero and his legacy. The I Promise School is about possibility. Its operating system was carefully crafted to take on a specific challenge – success meant lives saved, and failure was not an option. Two years into its tenure, the school has proved skeptics wrong. The IPS team will continue to work toward creating a definitive new model for public and urban education – a model voters at The Tylt long for with each poll.

As of the spring 2020 semester, Nate and Scout are both expected to rise to the fifth grade come fall. The students, staff – the family – at I Promise are remarkable. James may have been the necessary spark, but it’s the actions of hundreds of compassionate, determined individuals who carry out his directive. By the end of the first school year at the I Promise School, James helped Scout touch the classroom ceiling, but the I Promise School family aims to help hundreds of students break through it.