Is LeBron James's "I Promise School” a failure?

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Is LeBron James’s “I Promise School” a failure?

August 10, 2023 -

FILE - In this Monday, July 30, 2018, file photo, LeBron James speaks at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

FILE - In this Monday, July 30, 2018, file photo, LeBron James speaks at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

FILE - In this Monday, July 30, 2018, file photo, LeBron James speaks at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

In the wake of school shutdowns, remote learning, and the host of other complications caused by Covid-19, student test scores have continued to lag behind their pre-pandemic levels. To complicate matters further, many states are continuing to experience delays in reporting the test results necessary to gauge whether progress is being made. In Texas, for example, most students won’t know if they passed the previous year’s standardized tests until they’ve already started the fall semester.

Still, a delay in results does not mean that districts have set aside evaluating their schools, and one high-profile example has been making headlines in recent days for all the wrong reasons.

The “I Promise School” had a promising start

When LeBron James helped to start the I Promise School (IPS) in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, back in 2018, the goal was to help “those students who are already falling behind and in danger of falling through the cracks.” To that end, it opened with 240 third and fourth graders and has since added additional grades up to eighth.

Every year, the school holds a lottery to add 115 more students who are set to enter third grade and fall into the bottom 30 percent of reading scores. The goal, as Tamiko Hatcher, Akron’s director of specialty programs, states, is to help students improve at the rate of a grade and a third every year so that students who are two years behind upon entering will be caught up by the time they reach high school.

Initially, the school showed great promise in achieving that goal.

According to the Northwest Evaluation, its first group of students were in the 99th percentile for the rate of increase in their test scores. While a good bit of work remained, it appeared that the school’s approach of supporting kids in school and their families outside of school—in addition to providing school uniforms and extended hours, they also provide family members with GED classes and job placement assistance—was going to pay off.

Then the pandemic hit, and everything changed.

“Learning loss of any kind would be catastrophic”

While every school faced challenges as a result of Covid, the demographics of IPS meant they were impacted at an even higher rate than most.

As Jessica Poiner describes, “IPS students were already years behind their peers before the pandemic hit. Learning loss of any kind would be catastrophic to their outcomes. Add to that the fact that IPS was just a year and a half old when the pandemic hit (staff were still trying to establish the school’s culture) and was experiencing some leadership turmoil . . . and it would’ve been a miracle for IPS students to escape the pandemic academically unscathed.”

Add to that the fact that, in 2021, 30 percent of I Promise students had “at least one recognized disability that required an individualized education plan,” with that number climbing as high as 40 to 45 percent in some classrooms, and the lack of structure from remote learning and time away from school was further exacerbated.

Still, the degree to which the results faltered was staggering.

Their performance scores fell by almost 50 percent after the 2020 school year. While they rebounded some the next year, scores remained well below their pre-pandemic levels. In addition, the school’s eighth-grade class has not had a single student pass the state math test in three years.

Given those tests measure the degree to which students are competent at their grade level, low numbers are to be expected considering where the kids started. However, the school’s stated goal was for them to be caught up by the time they finished eighth grade, and that does not appear likely to happen.

So what should we make of the I Promise School? Is it, as some have described, a “school of failed promises?” Or are the negative headlines mostly the product of a dislike for LeBron James and fueled by people who want to see him fail?

In truth, it’s probably a bit of both. But lost in both extremes is a lesson that goes beyond test scores and school accountability, one that is relevant to each of us today.

God of second chances

C. S. Lewis once warned, “Don’t judge a man by where he is, because you don’t know how far he has come.”

In a world of instant reactions and echo chambers, we need that perspective now more than ever. Giving people the room to make mistakes, learn from them, and then improve takes a level of patience and understanding that is often lacking in our culture today. As Christians, we should be among those best positioned to offer such grace because we should be among those best positioned to understand how much grace God has shown us.

And when we do, the Lord can use us to accomplish amazing things in the lives of others.

As an example, we need look no further than the story of John Mark.

In Acts 15, we find Paul and Barnabas getting ready to revisit the churches they’d helped start in their previous travels. Things hit a snag, however, when Barnabas insisted on taking John Mark with them and Paul was steadfast in his refusal. The problem was that John Mark had left to go home halfway through their last missionary journey, and Paul didn’t trust him to be part of their group again.

The ensuing fight saw Barnabas go back home to Cyprus with John Mark while Paul sailed for Syria and Cilicia with Silas.

Interestingly, God’s word doesn’t render judgment on who was right and who was wrong in this particular instance. However, it does demonstrate that, because Barnabas didn’t give up on John Mark, John Mark grew in his faith to the point that he authored the first gospel to be written and became someone Paul would later consider “very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Be a Barnabas

Whether it’s kids struggling with school (here’s how you can pray for them), coworkers having a difficult time keeping up, or that person at church who just can’t seem to get their life together, let’s be sure not to give up on people before God does and stay open to however he may want to use us in their lives. While that doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind or fail to hold people accountable, if the Holy Spirit calls you to invest in a person’s life, it’s important that we do so.

So who needs you to be their Barnabas today? Is there anyone in your life you’ve been tempted to write off before checking with God first?

Make it a point to pray for them and ask the Lord to use you in whatever way he sees fit to do so.

Will you start right now?

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