“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
From the moment LeBron James was thrust into the national spotlight, talks of his greatness were primarily centered on the game of basketball. Through no fault of his own or anyone else’s, he was framed through the lens of the game that was introduced to the masses by James Naismith in 1891. People compared him to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, two of the greatest basketball players who ever lived. They did not compare him to past humanitarians, or past individuals who used their platforms as athletes to make the world a better place for children and families in their communities through the vehicle of formal education. As long as he lived up to the hype as a basketball star, all of the attention would be worthwhile.
But July 30, 2018 turned the narrative of LeBron James on its head. It was the day that LeBron James redefined what it meant to not only live up to the hype, but also what it meant for people covering the game and its athletes to look beyond their exploits as athletes and at what made them who they were. As of July 30, 2018, he found a way for this part of his story to be told. One that, had people paid closer attention, could have, and should have, been told years ago. July 30, 2018 is the day LeBron James opened his I Promise School (1), a public school in conjunction with the Akron School District and his foundation (2). The man has officially changed the game, but in ways one would least expect given his backstory.
As far back as 2002 in a Sports Illustrated cover story (3), the story of LeBron James and his basketball exploits were discussed. But another aspect of his upbringing was mentioned in that 2002 story: the fact , he missed over 80 days of school as a fourth grader due to an inconsistent living environment. As someone who works in higher education in the community college sector and considers education my unrivaled passion, it is mind-blogging that an elementary school student would miss that much school. Elementary school is where students learn basic skills that help build the foundation for their formal education. If it wasn’t for having the ability to attend elementary school with regularity, which I took for granted at the time, there is no way I would have been prepared for middle school, high school or college.
The foundation of formal education is built in elementary school. Each semester, I encounter students who absolutely want to be in college, yet are academically unprepared when they arrive. It is a challenge to work with the skills those students possess, yet a challenge educators wholeheartedly embrace. It was through no fault of LeBron’s that he was unable to consistently be at school. A case can be made that he decided that whatever he grew up to be in life, he would make it a personal quest and mission to give students the opportunities to succeed in school through a stable educational environment (4). He would make sure their families would be exposed to opportunities as well. At 9-10 years old, kids should be able to walk freely to school, or ride their bikes with the locks clanging against the seat waiting to be strapped against the bike rack in the front of the school. The school bus is another option for students who live too far to walk and are within the bus route. It never occurred to me, at that age, that there were kids who had to go through hell just to make it to the morning of school (5), let alone actually make it to school. It is through this lens that The I Promise School is beyond comparison and remains indescribable.
Another aspect of this that I take to heart is this is a public school. Public schools catch plenty of criticism for a number of reasons (6), and as a product of a public school education, it never really made sense to me. Public school is where I learned how to read, write, and communicate effectively with peers and adults. The foundation for any discernible skill I possess is due to teachers, peers and staff from the two public schools I attended in Denton, Texas. There will always be a place in education for public schools and the template set by the Akron School district and The LeBron James Family Foundation is proof of just that.
Students are able to stay in their neighborhoods and receive a quality education in an environment that is specifically-tailored to meet the various challenges of the community in which it is based (7). They are given bikes so they can ride to school, they can be well-fed throughout the day, and the ones who live outside of walking and bike-riding distance can catch the bus. Parents have access to a food pantry, job placement programs and programs to earn their GED. For the students who graduate from the school, a tuition-free college education awaits them at the University of Akron. Those same students will have the tools to go from academically underprepared at 8-9 years old to prepared for the challenges of college. They will be equipped with the background to learn at similar rates as their peers and equipped to balance classes and a social life. They will have opportunities to experience another world in college while not being totally separated from their lives as citizens of Akron.
This is so much bigger than what appears on the surface. This has the potential to break generational curses (8). “The revolution will be live” are words that can be used to sum up what is happening in Akron, Ohio. It’s a change thanks to a man who was crowned The Chosen One for basketball reasons, yet has solidified his standing as the greatest of all-time for his exploits in the education game that will last a lifetime.
All sources for this post are found in the Notes section.