Why LeBron James’ I Promise School should be more like LeBron and not shy away from issues of race

When it comes to dealing with issues of race and social justice, LeBron James has never been shy to speak his mind.

For instance, in a recent HBO series, “The Shop,” LeBron laments how in the NFL, “they got a bunch of old white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality.”

At a time when issues of race continue to play a prominent role in American society – from police killings of unarmed black men to racial disparities in America’s criminal courts – we find LeBron’s boldness and willingness to speak out on these issues commendable.

Which made it surprising to us that plans for a public elementary school in Akron, Ohio that four-time NBA MVP LeBron launched in 2018, to help students who are struggling to stay on track academically, largely ignored how important race is in educational attainment.

While we can appreciate the NBA great using his star power and considerable wealth to open a school for children in his hometown who are struggling academically, much like LeBron once was himself, we levy this criticism from our vantage point as scholars and students who study race in education. One of us – Kevin O’Neal Cokley – is an education scholar who has studied and written a book about the psychological and environmental factors that impact black student achievement. Two of us – Nolan Krueger and Marlon L. Bailey – are doctoral students in an educational psychology department.

Before we explain why we believe the I Promise School should deal with race more boldly and more explicitly, let us first identify the areas where we believe the school is getting things right.

Emphasis on teamwork

The I Promise School employs “rigorous problem-based, inquiry-oriented learning” that involves having students work together to solve problems. This is good because research has found that black students from low-income families prefer a more communal and collectivist approach to school work, not individualistic competition.

Positive disciplinary practices

Instead of relying on suspensions and expulsions, which tend to disproportionately impact black children, the I Promise School relies on what the school’s leaders refer to as the five “habits of promise.” Those are: problem-solving, perspective, partnership, perseverance and perpetual learning. This is especially important given how school suspensions and expulsions lead to higher dropout rates.

Values and supports families

One of the things that stands out most about the school is its “I Promise Family Plan.” This plan offers a range of supports and resources for students and families. The resources include a food pantry, a barbershop and hair salon, and help for parents to improve English comprehension and earn their GED.

This family plan is also designed to help remove barriers to graduation. For example, providing free uniforms, a free bicycle and helmet, a computer to every student and an onsite laundry facility may help families who are short on cash get the things they need. This lessens the likelihood that children will be teased and bullied in school, which would create a negative school climate.

Especially noteworthy is the school’s treatment of fathers. Instead of assuming that fathers are not involved in the lives of their kids, the I Promise School has a Father’s Walk Day in which fathers are formally welcomed to the school.

A student at the I Promise School shows school pride by getting an ‘IPS’ design in his haircut. The school provided nearly 70 IPS students free haircuts from local Akron and Cleveland barbers on site as part of IPS’s celebration of Black History Month. I Promise School

Extended school year

The I Promise School is praised as being the first of its kind because it will have an extended school year that lasts from July to May. It also features longer school days from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Longer school days have been shown to promote attendance and positive academic outcomes.

The school also features a seven-week summer session focused on STEM designed to help prevent the “summer slide” – that is, the loss of learning students suffer during summer vacation.

Questions about race

Despite the many things to like about the I Promise School, we question whether and to what extent the school deals directly with issues of race. Scholars such as Richard Milner suggest that schools must confront both poverty and race in the classroom in order to create optimal learning.