On the second floor of the I Promise School, a group of 16 fourth-graders sits in a circle and listens to a recording of Sara Bareilles singing about being brave. Snow falls on the trees outside the window, collecting on bare branches and dusting evergreens with white powder.
The students listen quietly to the song. A few wear school polo shirts and others wear T-shirts that say, “We Are Family” on the front in assorted colors. That’s the motto of the LeBron James Family Foundation’s I Promise program.
The song ends and their teacher, Bridget Casenhiser, jumps up from her stool at the head of the class. She turns off the music and asks the group what they learned from the song. They start their day by making promises.
“Don’t let people bring me down,” one girl says.
Another girl promises not to react poorly when somebody is mean to her. Another promises to talk to people when she’s having trouble.
“My I Promise is to have courage and have strength,” says a boy in a purple and gold “We Are Family” T-shirt.
A few minutes later he raises his hand to tell his teacher he likes her outfit — a pink “We are Family” T-shirt matched with pink Nikes.
“My promise is to be brave, allow you to be brave, guide you to be brave,” Casenhiser tells the students. She tells them that she is always in their corner. She tells them they all have something to offer.
Working through logistics
At the end of July the school opened to 240 third- and fourth-graders. These students weren’t selected for their high achievement — they were among the lowest performers in the school district.
These were students who experienced trauma in their daily lives, some whose parents didn’t have the means to keep adult hardships from affecting their kids, who in turn had too much going on in life to properly focus on school. These were students whose test scores would take years to recover.
“It’s harder work than I ever imagined day in and day out,” said Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation. “But that’s what continues to drive us.”
James, who returns to Cleveland on Wednesday for the first time to play as a Laker, put Campbell in charge of the project because he believes she can do anything. He wanted it to be a public school inside the district system, rather than a charter, because he went to public schools as a child. With that comes challenges.
They have to follow the school district’s parameters and protocol on various issues. The foundation can’t put money into the school until the district approves it, a process that can take time.
While the school district is responsible for basic academic functions, a school district spokesman said the foundation pays for additional teaching staff to reduce class sizes, an extra hour of after-school programming, tutors, substitute teachers, building improvements, technology for students, classroom amenities and other supporting programs.
For example, the teachers have access to a personal trainer who comes weekly. The Foundation also pays for all the programs through the school’s family resource center, which can offer everything from free groceries to GED services for parents.
Every week Campbell discovers new needs.
“I never thought about laundry services,” she said. “That didn’t cross my mind to have that in a school. Very quickly I learned it would be really helpful to some of our families if we had laundry services there. Our children could learn a life skill, learn how to wash their school uniform and have clean clothes to wear.”
The first few weeks of school weren’t about hard knowledge. The kids learned how to handle their emotions and how to recover from trauma.
Social and emotional learning is implemented at schools around the country, including within the L.A. Unified School District, but it can be challenging to implement and time consuming.
Each morning’s circle seeks to begin the daily conversation at the I Promise School. Campbell sees progress in attendance, in enthusiasm and in parent involvement. She asks for patience on harder numbers like test scores.
“Right now if you pulled our test scores, I don’t think we have them yet, I guarantee you they all failed,” Campbell said. “I 100% guarantee you none of them are where they need to be. And if a lot of them are, we’re miracle workers or we picked the wrong kids.”
The game-worn shoes that James donated as a fundraiser for the school still adorn the walls of the school’s entrance. When someone buys a shoe, for tens of thousands of dollars, its mate sits on the wall with a plaque recognizing the donor, among them golfer Bubba Watson and his wife Angie. If the donor wants to remain anonymous, the plaque has an inspirational word.
There are those who chafe at the attention paid to the school. A few stories this summer sought to question the sincerity of James’ efforts and how much money he was actually spending, given that the schools were getting public money — the insinuation that taxpayers were paying for James’ vision.
“My first reaction is I get really, really mad,” Campbell said. “I’m like, these people just don’t really know. And I just very quickly go back to — they don’t know what’s going on. … I challenge anyone to find another athlete or celebrity that has dug so deep and committed so much of himself to committing change to his hometown but not only to his hometown, also to allow the change he’s doing to be learned by others.”
The reality is James’ foundation has donated about $3 million so far, in addition to its public funding, according to Akron Public Schools. That total includes an extra $412,101 that was authorized by the school district in October. The school has an operating budget from the state of about $2.5 million, in keeping with state standards of school spending per student.
Exactly how much James personally donates to his foundation isn’t public, but the foundation sometimes spends more on its programs than it takes in during a fiscal year.
In 2016, for example, the foundation took in a little more than $3.4 million in grants and donations and spent $4.6 million on programs, according to its tax returns.
If it seems like the foundation wants the school to garner attention, it’s because it does. It wants others to know as much as possible about its plan, goals and challenges because it hopes this model spreads.
Room for growth
Right now the school educates third- and fourth-graders, but it plans to have a full grade school from first through eighth grade by the 2022-23 school year, according to the school’s written master plan.
In a fourth-grade classroom Tuesday morning, the kids are finishing their circle for the day.
Before the circle, they worked on a long division problem together. After the circle they’ll go to art class. They can’t help but go off topic sometimes while in the circle.
As Casenhiser tells the students that she believes in them, she adds that if there were ever a time when she didn’t, it would be time for her to retire. So the kids want to know when that will be.
She smiles and tries to explain the intricacies of retirement, and that she isn’t planning on it any time soon. One boy wants to know if next year she can go to fifth grade with them and remain their teacher.
The students all agree this sounds like a good idea.
She says she isn’t sure, but wouldn’t they like to try a new experience?
The students all agree they wouldn’t. They like this too much.
When: 5 p.m., Wednesday
On air: TV: ESPN, Spectrum SportsNet; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: The Lakers spent an extra day and a half in Miami before traveling to Cleveland. They’ll face James’ other former team Wednesday, one that now ranks last in the Eastern Conference with a 2-13 record.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli