For someone who has never seen the early morning rush at the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, it is a joyful sensory overload at first. It feels like being in close proximity to the floor of a basketball court when the home team’s starting lineup is announced. Kids spill out of cars and into the school building, where they are greeted by a line of adults and older students who clap them into the building. The radio version of a DJ Khaled hit blares from speakers, pouring down the winding staircases at the entrance. Mostly, the students run through the line of clapping hands, jumping up for high-fives or strolling confidently, brushing off a white sneaker or a T-shirt in the process. On average, the whole ritual takes more than thirty minutes.
It’s just a glimpse of the way in which LeBron James is trying to change public schooling in Akron for children labeled “at risk.” Warmth is key: If a student entering the building seems distressed or unresponsive to the enthusiastic ruckus, someone gently pulls him or her aside to check in. The people who work at the school know these kids well enough to decode a smile or lack thereof. “At the I Promise School, everything is different,” says Ciara DeBruce, who has a daughter heading into the fourth grade there. “Everyone genuinely cares.”
The word “family” is peppered throughout the school: on walls, on shirts, on its materials, on a large black flag that sits at the school’s back door. Everything the school does is done to foster the idea that everything within the walls of the building is an extension of the family unit a student left behind to come to school that day. Everyone at the I Promise School has a nickname, Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, tells me. She rattles them off matter-of-factly as each adult passes by. There’s Kit Kat, Tyga, someone who is simply nicknamed ” No. 1.” Everyone calls Campbell “Boss,” though in a way that is not necessarily tied to any rigid hierarchy. It’s more playful, endearing. “If you stay here long enough,” Campbell says, “we’ll get you a nickname, too.”
LeBron, of course, is adorned with the most famous nickname of all. The one that echoes both within these halls and far outside of it. When King James was a fourth grader, he missed 83 days of school. He moved constantly, burdened by instability at home. Through a network of people who believed in him and who saw the potential his future held, he flourished. Speaking with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in 2018, he explained what might be considered a guiding philosophy of the I Promise School: “I think that’s what kids ultimately want: They just want someone to feel like someone cares about them. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
The doors of the I Promise School are just a few stones throws away from where LeBron’s legacy took flight: St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. If you are an Ohioan of a certain era, you may have found yourself driving through the sometimes crummy weather of Northeastern Ohio on a fall or winter evening in the early 2000s. You may have found yourself standing in a line or hovering outside open gymnasium doors just to get a small glimpse of He Who Would Be King. So many of us in this state and beyond watched him in disbelief, climbing endlessly on the air during warmups, flinging passes through impossible slivers of unoccupied space. Now, James is reshaping the worlds of children who were like he once was. They might not yet have world-changing dreams beyond getting through the day and making it better than the day before it, but James is surrounding them with an entire roster of adults who believe in them. The I Promise School is the bridge from one past to several futures.
The second morning ritual at the I Promise School begins in a circle. After breakfast, students are asked to react to a song—how it makes them feel or not feel, what it inspires in them, what it reminds them of. On the floor of a dark classroom, students sit in a circle and crane their necks toward the wall, where a projector is playing the full eight-minute video for “We Are The World.” As the song churns forward, the group doesn’t fidget or squirm, as one might expect of young children. Instead, the students sit still, gazing at the video with fascination. One girl, maybe nine years old, leaps up and yells “CYNDI!” as Cyndi Lauper briefly flashes across the screen.
The post-song process of exploring the kids’ feelings and thoughts is miraculous to see—young people examining and expressing their feelings with their own language. Their desires are simple but profound. One student says he wants to have a good day, better than the last one. “How are you going to do that?” the teacher asks. The student ponders and then perks up and insists that he’s going to help his classmates, share and speak up when he has a problem. It’s the small things. Talk to the students like anyone else trying to figure out how to stumble through life the best way they can.
This is one of the numerous “trauma-informed” practices that the I Promise School employs to connect with its students. It’s part of a holistic approach to learning that the school’s trauma specialist, Nicole Hassan, boils down to simply being aware of what might be going on with a student and finding useful solutions to helping them work through their problems. It starts with getting students to identify whatever their baggage is, and then working to find a way to leave it at the door. “We encourage them to find the language to talk through what to do,” Hassan, who has taught in Akron Public Schools for 15 years, says. She took on her role at the I Promise School after studying the work of Bruce Perry, a doctor with a specialty in trauma and healing in children. “So now, it’s no longer about yelling or hitting someone.”
Much of the day at the I Promise School revolves around conversation, sitting in circles. “Getting the brain out of survival mode and to a place where it can think and process,” Hassan says. “It’s transformational.” By focusing on varying the modes of communication between students and adults, I Promise is, by extension, serving the parents. DeBruce has heard from other parents how the tools are transforming their lives at home. “I know a lot of parents that