LeBron James' I Promise School in Akron, Ohio debuted to rave reviews from an adoring media a year ago. Renowned for his thunderous basketball dunking and social justice warrior exploits, he plunked out $600,000 to help taxpayers start this unique school for at-risk third- and fourth-graders, along with a $1 million donation for a gym. On Wednesday, a poet and cultural critic named Hanif Abdurraqib wrote about the day he visited the school, and his story on Bleacher Report reveals the school's emphasis on self esteem and unorthodox teaching methods.
When Abdurraqib visited the school, Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, told him that initially, "we threw out teaching math and science and reading." Since then, those educational staples were implemented and students improved significantly from the beginning to the end of the first academic year.
For the first half-hour of each school day, the students — known as "Ambassadors" — and faculty engage in a spirited self-esteem ritual, described by Abdurraqib:
"(I)t is a joyful sensory overload at first. It feels like being in close proximity to the floor of a basketball court when the home team's starting lineup is announced. Kids spill out of cars and into the school building, where they are greeted by a line of adults and older students who clap them into the building. The radio version of a DJ Khaled hit blares from speakers, pouring down the winding staircases at the entrance. Mostly, the students run through the line of clapping hands, jumping up for high-fives or strolling confidently, brushing off a white sneaker or a T-shirt in the process. On average, the whole ritual takes more than thirty minutes."'
If this approach to education sounds unconventional, it's because James is trying to change public schooling in Akron for at-risk children. So if academics aren't stressed in traditional ways, warm and fuzzy feelings are. "Everyone genuinely cares," says Ciara DeBruce, the parent of one of the students. Every student is given a nickname, and the school instills a sense of family.
Abdurraqib recounts how, after breakfast, the "family" gathers in a circle and watches the eight-minute video of "We Are the World." Then students are asked how it "makes them feel or not feel, what it inspires in them, what it reminds them of."
"The post-song process of exploring the kids' feelings and thoughts is miraculous to see—young people examining and expressing their feelings with their own language. Their desires are simple but profound," writes Abdurraqib.
The school's trauma specialist, Nicole Hassan, explains that this is one of the numerous "trauma-informed" practices that I Promise School uses to connect with its students. The tactic helps them leave their baggage at the door.
Much of the day at the school is devoted to sitting in circles and talking, and Hassan calls the approach "transformational." Students engage in community service, like landscaping at the community center and chalking up sidewalks.
The children are rallying behind LeBron James, Abdurraqib says, because his "drive and passion seeps into the spaces he occupies ... ." James is said to have widened the path for these children.
Very wide. Among the values stressed at the school is that everything is earned rather than given. However, students at I Promise School will automatically receive scholarships at Akron University whether they are academically earned or not.