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LeBron James has one more career-defining moment in his home state, opening a public school in Akron

LeBron James Family Foundation's "I Promise" school opens Monday with hopes of changing public education.

As he drove to the school he was helping open in his hometown, LeBron James’ emotions brought him back to when he was the same age as the kids who were starting school there Monday.

He remembered school meaning nothing to him. He remembered it being too far away for him to get there, especially when his mother didn’t have a car. He missed 83 days of school in fourth grade.

“It was a surprise to me when I woke up and I was actually going to school,” James said.

As he got older he learned about the value of an education, and how important that was to break poverty cycles.

That’s why Monday mattered so much to James, the NBA’s biggest star who recently left Cleveland for the Lakers.

LeBron James
LeBron James finishes a news conference in a classroom at the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, on July 20. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

At 8 a.m., 240 at-risk third- and fourth-graders started at the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. It is a public, non-charter school, just like the ones James attended as a child, but it seeks to offer all the things kids growing up like James did need to succeed. The LeBron James Family Foundation is the top donor and worked with Akron Public Schools to meet all its standards and regulations. And here, the staff attends to not just the children’s education, but also the outside factors that might interfere with that education.

The kids received high-fives from the staff. They begged their teachers to know if “Mr. LeBron” was going to visit their classrooms. Some parents who’d lost jobs asked if the school could help them find new ones. A homeless family asked if they could get help, too.

The answers were yes, yes and yes.

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

AKRON, OHIO JULY 29TH 2018-School principal Brandi Davis waves in the lobby of the I PROMISE School
Principal Brandi Davis waves in the lobby of the I Promise School. “We are going to be that groundbreaking school that will be a nationally recognized model for urban and public school excellence,” she said. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

It began as an idea inside a monthly brainstorming session between James and Michele Campbell, the executive director of James’ foundation.

Sometimes her job is to manage the expectations of a man who believes, on and off the court, that he can accomplish anything. In this case, she let slip an idea he latched on to right away. Maybe their reach would improve if they created a school, she mused.

“Well, why aren’t you doing that?” James asked.

She told him the foundation wasn’t ready for that kind of project. He told her to get started anyway.

“There’s nothing that she can’t do,” James said. “If I tell her to go build a rocket and take it to outer space, Michele can make it happen.”

Kara Wharton
Kara Wharton, 8, visits the I Promise School, where her mother works as an intervention specialist, on July 29. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Like the early days of space travel, this was uncharted territory. The school district worked with the foundation. They brought together 120 stakeholders — parents, corporate sponsors, students, teachers, administrators and volunteers — to find out what students in their district really needed. Akron public schools are some of the lowest-performing in Ohio.

They settled on a program that helped teach the skills children need to handle trauma they see in their daily lives, combined with a hard math and science curriculum that would help further their education.

The school’s “wraparound” services help reduce stress kids might feel when their parents are struggling financially. That includes job and family services, a GED program, a food pantry from which they can shop and choose their meals, and help with housing if needed. They have a seven-week summer camp program to help avoid the trouble that comes with too much free time.

Every student gets a bicycle because when James was growing up, he used one to get away from the more dangerous parts of his community. The students also get a Chromebook to complete their homework.

“I wanted to keep it as consistent and as authentic to when I was a kid,” James said, while adding generous touches and technology.

AKRON, OHIO JULY 29TH 2018-LeBron James listens to questions during a press conference in a classroo
LeBron James listens to questions during a news conference in a classroom at the I Promise School on July 30. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

The children were randomly selected from a pool of Akron students whose reading levels were a year or two behind where they should be.

“And then we got to make these awesome phone calls to parents to say, ‘Hi, would you like to be a part of something new, something different? The I Promise School,’” said Keith Liechty-Clifford, the coordinator of school improvement for Akron Public Schools.

This renovated, stately brick building sits between a McDonald’s and a convenience store. Inspirational quotes wallpaper the interior and the entrance is decorated with James’ game-worn shoes, which will be sold as a fundraiser. Some walls are painted with murals of such figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson.

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.

All their supplies also are provided by the school. That was a pleasant surprise for Angela Whorton, an intervention specialist at the I Promise School. She’s been a teacher for 10 years and almost always had to spend her own money to properly stock the classroom.

I Promise School
The I Promise School is in a renovated brick building that sits between a McDonald’s and a convenience store. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

She’s spent her own money here, too, but for personal touches. She bought a black rug that functions like a red carpet and put stars on it so the students feel special walking into the room. The writing utensils in her room are topped with white artificial flowers.

From her classroom on the second floor, Whorton pointed out of a window to a neighboring home’s modest backyard. She moved to Akron when she was in eighth grade.

“Through those trees was my backyard,” Whorton said. “And I used to dream big. At the time my mom was struggling as a single parent. She promised us that if we had an education we could be and do anything we needed to be.”

When they didn’t have electricity, Whorton’s mom lit candles so she and her brother could do their homework. When the plant where she worked shut down, Whorton’s mom went back to school and took two jobs to care for her children. She’d stand in line at the food bank to make sure she had something to feed her kids.

Whorton knows just how valuable the school she works in can be in this community. Sunday afternoon her family got a closer look at the school and she couldn’t stop her tears.

AKRON, OHIO JULY 29TH 2018-School intervention specialist Angela Whorton, second from right, kisses
Intervention specialist Angela Whorton kisses her mother, Karla Burham, as other family members look on inside the I Promise School on July 29. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

“The family wraparound approach is going to help the community,” Whorton said. “Right from my window. Looking at my backyard where I used to dream. There’s nothing more electric than that.”

A two-hour ceremony followed the end of the first day of school. At its conclusion, James spoke to the crowd. He laughed at someone who shouted “wee wee,” his mother’s nickname growing up. He paused for a moment when a man in the back of the audience shouted, “We love you!”

It was Michael Barkley, who wore a shirt celebrating the Lakers’ 2009 championship, and had his granddaughter with him. Barkley’s daughter, Linea Wade, is a teacher at the I Promise School.

James looked back into the crowd for a moment.

“I love you too, man,” James said. “I really do. Know no matter if I’m playing in Los Angeles or not, Akron, Ohio, is always home for me. Always.”

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli

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