LeBron’s I Promise School Is Bigger Than Any Championship Ring

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Some of my fondest memories as a child involve school, and not because I was some overeager bookworm excited to sit in class and learn. Only later in life did I realize this was escapism, the type of catharsis I needed to get away from the stress of poverty at home, even as a young child.

School provided things I never really knew I needed and showed me things I would not have seen otherwise. I was raised in the notorious Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, Calif., now famous for being the home of rapper Mozzy. While rap often embellishes everything, Mozzy accurately depicts the desolate conditions of the neighborhood that raised us. Oak Park is littered with drugs, gangs and violence. It’s inescapable, even as a child. For many, the only safe haven is school, and Marian Anderson Elementary provided that for me.

Though I now understand the short bus ride that took me from home to school is less than a mile, it might as well have been an entire world away. When you’re raised in a neighborhood like Oak Park, you often don’t see much beyond the few blocks that you call home. My mother didn’t have a car, neither did any of my friend’s moms. We could leave by bus, but the neighborhood provided everything we thought we needed: a park, a corner store, some friends and the TV in the living room.

But school provided even more. School had VCRs with Disney movies I wouldn’t have seen at home, a library with books I would otherwise have never read, hot food, and adults who seemed to care. School took me to the zoo, to museums, taught me about music, and gave me a place to play organized sports. School showed me there was more to the world than those few blocks I called home.

LeBron James was a kid just like me, and his story is well-known by now. He went through various periods of homelessness as his single mother struggled to raise him. In fourth grade he missed nearly 100 days of school and was in danger of flunking, until his mother went to the school and sought a way to ensure he would pass. James and his mom split the massive stack of extra credit his teacher sent home to enable him to finish fourth grade, and the rest is history.

None of that was lost on LeBron as he prepared to open the I Promise School to 240 third and fourth graders in Akron, Ohio. The children were randomly chosen from a pool of students who were a grade or two behind their normal reading level, and the school will provide accelerated learning to bring those kids up to speed.

“I know these kids basically more than they know themselves,” James said in a video on Sunday, on the eve of the school’s opening. “I walked the same streets. I rode the same bikes on the streets that they ride on. I went through the same emotions. The good, the bad, the adversity. Everything these kids are going through, the drugs, the violence, the guns, everything they’re going through as kids, I know.”

“I remember wishing school was longer, so I wouldn’t have to return to the plight of my neighborhood.”

I Promise offers more than just the education these children will receive and badly need. The 240 students enrolled will be divided up amongst 12 teachers, and the school will house 43 academic staffers in total, including a principal, assistant principal, four intervention specialists, tutor, English as a second language teacher, music instructor and a gym teacher.

The school day will be longer than usual, starting at 9:00 a.m. and ending at 5:00 p.m., and the school year will be longer as well, and will include a seven week summer school session. Students will be served breakfast, lunch and a snack, and the curriculum was created with the assistance of the Akron school board. LeBron is the school’s primary financier, donating millions to start the school and he even arranged for all students to receive free tuition for the University of Akron upon completion of the program at I Promise.

But there’s even more, as I Promise will focus on factors that will affect the children outside of the classroom. Each student will receive a bike, something James himself cites as his main means of escapism as a child; a bike allowed him to explore beyond his neighborhood and discover there was a world beyond the couple of blocks he called home.

There are also services provided to the parents as well. I Promise will provide job placement assistance to for parents, and there’s a program that will help them finish high school and pursue further education. An on-site food bank will allow parents to pick out food to prepare at home.

I remember needing all of the things the I Promise School is set to provide all of the children enrolled into the school. A longer school day and a longer school year might have saved my life, kept me busy and out of the random trouble I got into in my adolescence. Job placement assistance and educational opportunities might have saved my mom’s life. An on site food bank would have erased countless days and nights at the end of the month where we weren’t quite sure what we were going to eat for dinner.

I remember wishing school was a little bit longer, so I wouldn’t have to return to the plight of my neighborhood. I remember making sure I got off the school bus fast enough to get breakfast before class, because I wasn’t able to eat breakfast at home. I remember needing that escape during the long summer days when there was no school to go to. The I Promise School provides all of that, and then some.

Granted, my mother and I were able to preserve and somehow, against all odds, advance past our situation to attend jobs and move beyond our adverse conditions. LeBron has as well, obviously. This week, 240 third and fourth graders will receive all of that assistance, and hopefully it will make it so they don’t need to succeed against all odds. Hopefully, their future success will be just as planned.

LeBron James has missed over 11,000 shots in his career, he’s turned the ball over nearly 4,000 times and he’s lost six NBA Finals. None of it matters, but in 20 years the I Promise School still will. LeBron is quite literally saving lives, and there is no basket he can make or game he can win that can match that.

“I want people to know that these kids should still have the same opportunity as everybody else,” LeBron said. “That’s what’s most important. Us as adults, we have a responsibility to not let these kids down, to continue to be the teachers, the mentors, the parents, the coaching, the life skills, the superheroes … whatever it is that gives the inspiration, everything, that’s our responsibility. These kids are our future and they have dreams and aspirations bigger than the city of Akron, than the state of Ohio, than the USA.”

At the grand opening of I Promise School, LeBron made his intentions clear. He’s here to provide opportunity. The same opportunity he needed, the same opportunity I needed, my mom needed, and every single impoverished child and parent in America desperately needs.

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