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Opinion: How LeBron’s Public School Can Be a Model for Community Involvement

Mike Alcock Mike Alcock Opinion: How LeBron’s Public School Can Be a Model for Community Involvement
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On Monday, July 30, 2018, LeBron James and his Family Foundation opened The I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. It is a public school, part of the Akron Public School District, and will serve low-income and at-risk students in the NBA superstar’s hometown. This pointed mission and James’ demonstration of support in public education is rightly receiving major attention, almost all of it positive. That James – a wealthy, powerful man, and perhaps one of the most recognizable people on the planet – has made the conscious decision to invest in a traditional, neighborhood public school is profound.

But why, exactly?

Consider the following from Akron Public Schools Superintendent David W. James, excerpted from a piece he wrote for Diane Ravitch’s blog in response to reader questions about the school:

“APS funds this school as we fund all other schools within the district. LeBron and his Foundation partners are funding most of the wrap-around supports and extra services above and beyond what we typically provide. For those of us in the public and not-for-profit sectors, we constantly worry about sustainability.” [emphasis mine]

The I Promise School will offer students free tuition, uniforms, bikes and helmets, transportation within 2 miles, breakfast, lunch, snacks, a food pantry for families, GED and job placement services for parents, and guaranteed tuition to UAkron for every graduate. In effect, James is removing a lot of the ‘non-academic’ obstacles and barriers that many public school students face. That is, these supports are all supplemental to the actual classroom learning and education that will happen at IPS.

But, to be clear, supplemental doesn’t mean dispensable. By providing this community support around a public school – and I say ‘community’ because, even though it’s LeBron’s money, he is so clearly listening to what his neighbors are asking for by providing these services – he is demonstrating the vital role neighborhood partners play in ensuring kids are adequately prepared for learning. Not ‘schooling’ – learning.

Just imagine, for a moment, if we all stepped up like this in a much smaller way on a regular basis. In theory, Columbus City Schools already provides free tuition to magnet schools, free transportation, free meals all day, a fairly robust adult and community education curriculum that offers many free or low-cost options and services, and a number of partnerships with area colleges to offer reduced or free tuition to area colleges for high-achieving graduates.

So, why aren’t you hearing about them the way you’re hearing about LeBron?

The unfortunate answer is that, while many of those services exist, they have not been made equitably accessible – and they often don’t strategically leverage community assets. This isn’t necessarily the school or Columbus City Schools’ fault, although it’s not not their fault, either. And our communities aren’t to blame, except when they are.

At the end of the day, there has to be a conscious commitment on the part of our schools and their communities to work together to provide support in the form of people showing up ready to help, and schools ready to receive that help.

Show up and serve breakfast. Show up and lead a bike safety class. Show up and stock a food pantry. Show up and clean and inventory a free store. Show up and plant and maintain a garden. Show up and spend 15 minutes a day to help K-3 graders improve their reading. Show up and spend one hour per week helping high school juniors and seniors as they explore post high school options. Show up and speak to a class about your background, education, and work experience. Show up and facilitate workshops at faculty meetings about neighborhood initiatives, community-based resources, and cultural competency. Show up and tell a teacher that you appreciate what they do and want to learn more about the assets in their classroom, and how you can help leverage them.

And, if you show up and are met with resistance, show up at your next school board meeting and let them know that. Show up at your district’s superintendent office and request a meeting. Show up at your next civic or neighborhood association meeting and find out who might have an open channel. Show up at a more receptive neighboring school or one of their parent-teacher group meetings and find out what they’re doing. By all means, show up around your neighborhood, beyond the school, to find out what’s happening so that you can help connect the school to those awesome initiatives (because in so many cases, it’s not that they’re not aware, but rather fundamentally unequipped to manage another partnership without a community lead to spearhead it).

Beyond the community showing up, of course, public schools also need to be able to employ professionals who can come in and offer an entire suite of ‘support services’. (Which are really ‘vital’ services, they just don’t ever get called that). Counselors, social workers, career and life coaches, early childhood professionals – yes, some students have kids, and those kids need support, too – and so many other services that not only help students meet their basic needs, but also boost and encourage those students to grow. The education that happens in the classroom doesn’t happen without these services. And it’s just one piece of a student’s overall growth as a person, albeit a critical one.

LeBron James understands all of this.

He’s putting his money where his mouth is.

But he’s letting the school and the community make the most of that situation by trusting them to take the lead, together.

That’s really special, and incredibly rare.

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