LeBron James’s I Promise School puts a public face to the evidence-based approach of whole-family intervention
LeBron James is grabbing headlines for more than his basketball skills. With the opening of his charity’s I Promise School, his philanthropic efforts are sharing the spotlight. The goals of the LeBron James Family Foundation’s new school in Akron, Ohio, extend beyond educating at-risk third and fourth graders. The school is a bold, public experiment in whole-family community intervention, and it is rooted in strong evidence and a proven model.
The “I Promise” ethos runs throughout the school’s mission. Students promise to work hard and complete school. Teachers promise to love the community’s students and families. James and Akron Public Schools promise every student free uniforms, meals, and a bicycle. James’s foundation will pay students’ tuition to the University of Akron after they graduate from high school.
But I Promise’s designers recognize that to create an upwardly mobile community, what happens outside the classroom can be just as important as what happens during school hours. Dual-generation interventions like the I Promise School aim to help parents and students together. The school promises to uplift parents too and aims to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
The school’s dual-generation education strategy provides wraparound services for families, including a food bank, GED programs, and job placement services for parents, managed by two full-time employees. It also eases the burden of finding child care by offering longer school days and school years.
I Promise acknowledges the significant barriers low-income parents face in ensuring their children attend school and stay out of trouble after school. Frequently absent students achieve less in school, and in high-poverty areas in the US, absentee rates are three to four times the national average. As a fourth grader in Akron, LeBron James missed 83 days of school.
A quarter of Akron’s population struggles with poverty, and the poverty rate is higher (32 percent) among families with kids. Of adults in poverty, 35 percent did not work in the past 12 months, and an additional 30 percent worked only part time.
Parents seeking to improve their job prospects through education and training often run up against scheduling conflicts and child care challenges. Urban Institute research finds that local workforce systems help parents overcome these boundaries to improved earnings, employment, and job stability.
I Promise’s family-centered model draws from other successful community collaboratives. The pioneering Harlem Children’s Zone initiative has offered comprehensive support for children and families since 2000. After the success in Harlem, President Obama and the Department of Education began the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative in 2010, a program that now funds community collaboratives in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
Successful whole-family programs track outcomes for both parents and children. Urban researchers studying Promise Neighborhoods and the Housing Opportunity and Services Together effort are exploring how whole-family programs can overcome barriers to economic mobility that plague communities like Akron. Parents in family-focused programs, encouraged by their children’s success, may pursue more credentials and obtain better jobs and improve their parenting skills and certification and education levels.
I Promise, like its predecessors, believes that expanding opportunity for the next generation takes a collective effort. Philanthropy, nonprofits, the public school system, teachers, parents, and students all play a role in supporting a shared goal: building cradle-to-career solutions in communities to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
An earlier version of this post misrepresented the costs covered by the LeBron James Family Foundation and the city of Akron (corrected 8/14/18). This post was also corrected to show that Promise Neighborhoods was started by the US Department of Education, not the Department of Housing and Urban Development (corrected 8/16/18).
LeBron James speaks during a ceremony on the first day of classes at his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. Photo by Justin Domhoff/Kaulig Media