If you want to see the difference between the haves and have nots of Los Angeles, go to a Laker game. There is the 100s section where you will find endless celebrities and the who’s who of Hollywood. Then there is us. Way up in the 300s section, hugging the retired jerseys of Laker greats and championship banners, sit the real Angelenos. Even more of these real Angelenos sit at home rooting for the purple and gold unable to afford the hefty ticket price. My friends and I playfully refer to our couches as the 400s section. It was these Angelenos that ran to the street or lied in bed shedding tears of joy (the author of these piece may or may not have done the latter) when Lebron James signed with the Lakers on July 9th.
James’ signing turned the basketball world upside down, yet it was what he did three weeks later that not only changed an entire community, but has the potential to change the way we think about public schools. On July 30th, The Lebron James Family Foundation opened the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The I Promise School chose children from the surrounding neighborhood that were reading one or two years below their reading level. The I Promise School selected children of parents that struggle financially. The I Promise School, in essence, is serving the people that sit in the 400s section of Akron.
So what makes I Promise School so special? All students receive a bicycle as Lebron himself struggled with transportation to school causing him to miss 83 days as a fourth-grader. Students will also receive a chromebook to help them complete homework and will have an extended eight hour school day. Additionally, if I Promise students complete high school, James has guaranteed a full scholarship for them to attend the University of Akron!
I Promise School understands that the success of its students is much more dependent on just what happens in the classroom. To support the community, the school is providing a food pantry, job services, and a GED program for parents who never graduated from high school. I Promise is also taking care of its teachers by offering them free personal fitness training and access to psychological professional development in order to better serve its students, many of whom have suffered some sort of trauma.
What makes I Promise School one of its kind, however, is the fact that despite all the money poured in by Lebron James, it is still a completely public non-charter school. James wanted to strengthen the public schools in his community and not drain resources away from them. Many celebrities and philanthropists have supported the opening of new charter schools, but in the process have dwindled the enrollment of neighborhood public schools, hence, reducing their resources.
According to Money Magazine, the Akron school district will spend around eight million dollars a year in its first year of operation while Lebron James has already contributed two million dollars for all the “extras” that students and parents are receiving.
I believe that I speak for all of us sitting in the 300s and 400s section when I say that we would welcome an I Promise School in Los Angeles. According to NAEP, only one in six African American and one in five Latino students are reading at grade-level in California. Clearly, we share much of the same ills as Akron. However, the opening of I Promise School may be the glimmer of hope that we need to reform our schools. Maybe this new model of a school could be what we have been waiting for in the public school sector. Could it be that Lebron James has arrived to Los Angeles not just to save the Lakers, but also to save our public education? If so, there would be no greater Laker legacy.
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