Empowering Families At Akron's I Promise School

Mar 8, 2019
Originally published on March 8, 2019 10:41 am

About 400 parents and kids load up their trays with dinner from Swensons and settle into the I Promise School cafeteria and gym for a quick guide to managing money, a pitch for flu shots and a student performance on messages hidden in old spirituals.

These kinds of family gatherings happen once a month and at least 80 percent of the I Promise families participate, according to Nicole Hassen, the Akron Public Schools liaison to the LeBron James Family Foundation.

That runs counter to national surveys, including one by the U.S. Department of Education that shows poverty cuts parent participation. It’s something Hassen said she experienced during her nearly 20 years as an Akron schools teacher.

But she says she also learned, “All the parents want to do what’s best for their kids, but they just don’t necessarily know how or don’t feel welcomed. So when you offer that invitation and you mean it, they’re like, ‘Yes, I’ll do anything.’”

In this case, “anything” is helping 225 third and fourth graders learn, cutting through the trauma that comes with poverty, homelessness, violence, mistrust and other issues that so often enmesh urban kids.

Hassen says the core is providing “consistency and lots of love.”

“A lot of our kids have trouble trusting adults and trusting consistency,” she said. So it took the kids a few months to become convinced “we aren’t going anywhere, and you really aren’t getting kicked out. That is the coping technique for some of our more extreme kids: ‘I’d rather get kicked out than you let me down.’”

A gathering of families at Akron's I Promise school

The agenda for this February family gathering included a discussion on money management. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]

Akron Public Schools and the LeBron James Family Foundation launched the I Promise school just seven months ago. It’s too soon to measure the school by test scores and most other standardized metrics, but its supporters are increasingly convinced the city’s newest public school understands the core of what it takes to transform urban education across America.

A Primer on the I Promise School

It’s a traditional public school, not a charter. It’s a STEM school that recruited its first class from the bottom quarter of Akron’s reading scores and from neighborhoods throughout the city.

Student attendance has been running at 97 to 98 percent.

Class size is capped at 20. School begins at 9 a.m. with a sharing circle that includes a song and a chance for kids to decompress, and ends at 5 p.m., in part so parents are more likely to be home when kids get off the bus.

The promise pledge

A mural of the I Promise pledge [M.L. Schultze]

There’s clothing for kids in what’s called the “happy-happy room” and another room filled with teacher supplies, the kind of stuff many teachers have to dig into their own pockets to supply.

Much of that comes from the $3 million put up so far by the LeBron James Family Foundation.

But the foundation’s presence is really felt in the Family Resource wing — a place for GED classes, a legal aid clinic, a health clinic, Job and Family Services, a food pantry.

The food pantry at the I Promise school.

The food pantry is one of the wraparound services offered at the I Promise School. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]

Victoria McGee, director of the center, is a woman with a steady smile and a ready laugh. The thing she wants everyone to know is, “I just love people.”

Especially, she says, people who are going through the kind of experience she did when her parents split and her family ended up homeless. Helping families get through those experiences is part of her job. McGee is tasked with developing plans for each family, from getting housing or a GED to expunging an old criminal record. 

Victoria McGee is director of the Family Resource Center at the I Promise school.

Victoria McGee is director of the Family Resource Center [M.L. Schultze]

“You’re providing support, encouragement and you’re empowering families to make a change,” McGee said. “And at the end of the day, what we really hope to happen here is that we’re changing the whole trajectory of kids, family and community.”

And ultimately, it was more important for the LeBron James I Promise School to have that than a basketball gym. For basketball, the kids head about a mile away to a rec center.

LeBron’s Imprint 

Make no mistake. The imprint of one of the greatest players in NBA history is everywhere at I Promise starting with the lobby.

On shelves that float above the curving staircases sit 114 shoes, each worn in an NBA game. Their mates are being sold to raise money for the LeBron James Family Foundation.

But the head of the Foundation, Michele Campbell, says the biggest contribution came from sitting down with LeBron and his mother, Gloria, and asking about the days they were homeless, when he missed 84 days of the fourth grade alone.

“‘Tell us about those hard days. Tell us about when you struggled. Tell us what it was like to live with never knowing who your dad is and what could have helped you,’” she said. “And the most important question of all was, ‘What would have made the journey to where you are now easier and better?’”

Campbell said the answer is one they hear echoed by I Promise families now.

“They need people that love them no matter what’s going on in their life and that won’t judge them,” she said.

But Campbell says the “no-judgment zone” doesn’t mean no expectations. She quotes LeBron: “‘Nothing is given, everything is earned.’ And our students need to work hard. Our families work hard.”

LeBron James Family Foundation Executive Director Michele Campbell walks down the stairs at the I Promise school.

LeBron James Family Foundation Executive Director Michele Campbell looks at the wall of LeBron James' shoes. Each one was worn in an NBA game, its partner pair sold to raise money for the Foundation. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]

Ciara DeBruce walks down the hall with 3-year-old Justice, the youngest of her three kids, and her 9-year-old Larry. She’s working with the Family Resource Center to expunge her record, but sometimes, she says, the value of the center is simply as a refuge.

“I’ve cried on their shoulders, they have really been a family to me,” she said.

Ciara DeBruce with her three children.

Ciara DeBruce with her three kids. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]

Her daughter, Lirayah, bounds up from downstairs, and introduces herself “L-i-r-a-y-a-h, and this is how you spell it in sign language.”

In rapid succession, she explains sign language and rattles off the I Promise pledge and its five Ps: partner, perseverance, perspective, perpetual learner and problem solver.

She also talks about friends, learning from mistakes, and what she most looks forward to in life: “Watching my little brother get to grow up, watching my big brother get to grow up. Watching my mom be really helpful to all of us.”

The Whole Child

Akron isn’t the only place trying to come up with a solution to what ails urban education. And I Promise has been drawing national and international attention, including a visit from a United Nations delegation.

When Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote a Newsweek article last month calling LeBron James “a hero for our time,” he focused not on LeBron’s basketball talent, but on the school and its focus on “the whole child.”

The I Promise school is part of the Akron Public School district.

I Promise is a traditional Akron public school, not a charter. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]

The I Promise School started last summer with third and fourth-graders. The district and Foundation picked those grades because that’s when Ohio’s reading guarantee kicks in, and children get held back if they’re not proficient. Hassen says it’s also when learning-to-read transitions to reading-to-learn, and many kids fall away.

I Promise will continue through the summer with a seven-week camp.

And next year, the school will add a fifth grade. By 2022-23, it expects to have grades one through eight, filling all three floors of the building.

But, Victoria McGee insists, the school will always have room for families because, as the bold letters standing outside the building read, “We are family.”

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