Draped in a light grey suit and an air tie, LeBron James, widely recognized as the greatest professional basketball player walking the earth, sat down to do an interview on Monday with ESPN journalist Rachel Nichols in his childhood hometown of Akron, Ohio. On any other day since James shocked the sports world by announcing his recent decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers, a typical interview would have focused on him explaining the cosmic shift in the NBA landscape that he alone created. Instead, James announced a new venture with even larger implications than the 6 feet 8 inch forward donning the purple and gold. After years of working and planning in the background, the LeBron James Family Foundation was opening the I Promise School in partnership with the Akron school district. It will serve at-risk students—the kind of kids that James was before the world discovered his talents with a basketball.
This is more than just a rich athlete using wealth for a good cause. I’d argue that he is one of the most influential people in the United States, if not the world, and now he is getting directly and personally involved in education reform en route to making a major statement about American democracy. James sat down with Nichols to discuss what he called “one of the greatest moments, if not the greatest moment, of my life”—the day that the I Promise School opened its doors for the first time.
Everything I’ve read about the design of I Promise suggests that research from evidence-based policy interventions was at the forefront of its conception. Students at I Promise will spend more time at school—they will have longer days and a longer year. (There’s a long history of research that suggests that American students need to spend more time at school to improve academic performance.) I Promise plans to provide extended professional development for teachers on how to engage with at-risk students academically and personally. Teachers will be charged with developing well-rounded students by facilitating “Be Best” meetings (unrelated to the first lady’s campaign) that teach students holistic activities like gardening and yoga. They plan to hire as many teachers as possible from the Akron community and offer wraparound services for students and their families.
As great as these interventions sound, the true value lies in the access that the school plans to provide for some of Akron’s most vulnerable children. I Promise is a public school. And it will be subject to the same rules and public pressures as the other schools in the Akron public school district.
Other celebrities and activists with dreams of helping at-risk youth, including rapper Pitbull, Deion Sanders (former NFL star turned sports analyst), and Jalen Rose (former NBA star turned sports analyst) have gravitated toward creating charter schools. While some charters have produced student success, charter schools by design don’t require the same accountability to the public that traditional public schools do. This was supposed to be an advantage (no district politics or red tape), but it can also make it difficult for charters to cultivate strong community ties. The student-selection process has stirred controversy for being biased. And that controversy has only grown as a result of the mechanisms that some charter schools have used in order to peel off the most promising at-risk students, leaving the public schools with even more students who face unimaginable challenges.
I Promise, like a number of charter schools, selects its students by lottery; however, instead of parents having to seek out the good school, the school finds the students and enters them into the pool. Luck alone, not hidden advantages, decides the academic fate of the children. This mode of selection reflects James’s understanding of how crucial collaboration and empowerment are in an impoverished and heavily African-American community.
An estimated 25 percent of Akron residents live in poverty, which is close to twice the national average. African-Americans comprise 32 percent of Akron’s population, but nearly half of its public school students (46 percent) are African-American—the largest racial group in the district. Three of the district’s seven school board members are African-American and so is Superintendent David W. James (no relation to LeBron). The superintendent has forged countless partnerships between the district and the community. LeBron James and his foundation are but the latest members to join the team.
This collaborative environment means that I Promise both empowers and is held accountable to the Akron community. This is a highly unusual arrangement in an era when power is constantly being usurped from school districts by federal and state lawmakers from above (the Every Student Succeeds Act notwithstanding), as well as by organized groups from below. Instead of adding to the power drain, James made the decision to offer additional resources to a district that is held publicly accountable. Instead of replacing democracy, he’s relying on it.
It is fitting that James is committing to this type of project as he criticizes President Donald Trump. Trump, like many of his predecessors, refuses to tie his reputation to the success of traditional public schooling. Instead, Trump and the U.S. Department of Education have placed all of their chips on school choice. James is creating I Promise because he understands from personal experience, having been an at-risk youth, that creating schooling options isn’t the solution to the problem. The solution is creating good schools—the kind of schools that have the resources and community understanding needed to help kids with the greatest risks overcome the odds. End of story.
The Trump administration’s involvement in public education perfectly mirrors its adversarial relationship in politics. While Trump has used his celebrity to place American democracy in danger, LeBron James is using his platform to galvanize faith and trust in the rule of the people.
During the interview with Rachel Nichols, James explained why, after hearing one of the president’s supporters suggest James “shut-up and dribble,” he felt the need to use his platform to empower youth: “For someone or a body or parties to try and divide us ... I couldn’t let that happen. By using my voice and letting the youth know that I care for them and that I’ll be their voice ... that’s what I’m here for.”
Nichols then asked, “Can we expect you to be active going up to the next election, like you were the last election?”
Then, as if signaling to the nation, James said, “I’m here. I already got my suit, my glasses.”