The day the I Promise School first opened its doors in Akron, Ohio, a new player joined the world of public education. The school, founded in 2018, is the product of the LeBron James Family Foundation and the Akron Public School System. Now the subject of Quibi’s feature docuseries, “I PROMISE,” the school is turning heads around the country. Many are asking how LJFF pulled off such a feat and wondering how the school is performing now. The Tylt’s Jessie Blaeser and Daniel Tran sat down with Michele Campbell, Executive Director of LJFF, to learn more about the inner workings of the I Promise School and whether its new model of education can be replicated in public school districts around the country.
James’ legendary activism is everyone’s favorite topic. But as fans familiarize themselves with the work of the I Promise School, the question remains whether the “LeBron James legacy” will be dominated by the sport that brought him fame or the actions he took once he earned it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click here to listen to The Tylt's conversation with Campbell in full.
Tran: Michele, when you and LeBron were coming up with this idea for the I Promise School, how did the vision first come about?
Campbell: It came about when we were working with students before the school opened. We were watching their growth and how they were closing the gap, and quite frankly, as they were aging, we weren’t closing the gap quick enough because I looked ahead at how many years there were left in school…. [LeBron James and I] talk all the time about what’s going on and how’s the movement, and he said, “Well, what more should we be doing?”
It didn’t seem like it could be a reality, but I remember saying to him, “Well, I believe if we’re ever going to make a difference, we need to open our own school so everyone at that school understands the philosophies and the foundation and what we’re trying to do,” and he literally looked at me and said, “Then why aren’t you doing that? What are we waiting for?”
Tran: And for that school to be born, how difficult was it and what sort of roadblocks did you hit along the way?
Campbell: It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, which I would expect when creating real change. And the reason it’s been so challenging is because there’s so many stakeholders involved, and we’ve partnered with a public school system who we hold near and dear to our heart, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. But I will tell you that it is very, very challenging. You’re working with a public system that’s done things the same way for many, many years. They’re governed by the state; you’ve got all these different unions – the teachers’ union, a custodial union. When you want to create change, you have to bring all those people and get them to believe in it. You have to get them to have a leap of faith because we don’t have all the answers and we’re learning as we go. So, it has been very, very difficult, and in the same breath, I will say, very, very rewarding.
We’re trying to create a movement. We’re trying to create real change. We’re trying to create a model that the rest of the country can look to – our successes, and more importantly, where we’ve stumbled along the way, so they can learn from that and hopefully provide a new way of educating students who are living in trauma. We believe for a public school to do that in a public school setting is very important.
Blaeser: Given that the mission of the I Promise School is to create this model of urban and public education, how is it possible for other school districts to follow in the footsteps of what the I Promise School is doing, knowing that they don’t have that same backing from the LeBron James Family Foundation?
Campbell: What is happening in this community – and what you’ve seen in those first few episodes and what you will see – is this real change, and it’s happening not because of one man and not because of one foundation. There are so many community partners and our family members who are believing in this magic, and that’s how it can happen.
All you need is one person, whether that person be LeBron James or someone else. You need one person to start that movement and really have passion about it, and I believe you will find...other good people who want to be part of a movement like this that live in Atlanta, St. Louis, New York City, everywhere.
Even when [James] told me for the very first time, “We’re going to change graduation rates in Akron, Ohio. All those kids who are dropping out, that is our mission.” I never like to say “no,” so I’m like, “Yep, okay, we’ll figure out how we’re going to do that.” And then I walk away to my team, sit down, and I’m like, “What is he talking about, like, the whole country hasn’t figured this out. How can we?”
I don’t like to let that man down. He is a wonderful boss, I love working for him and I want to make him proud every day, so I’m not going to say, “No, that’s crazy, let’s do something else.” But then when you come back, you really start to break it down. We realized we have to work with the families. And what’s one thing they all care about? Everyone cares about their kids. Everyone cares about their kids and wants the best for their kids. So, to have the school be the hub of that is like a common denominator where we can bring people together, and it just stems from there. And I honestly believe, with all of my heart, that there are people in every community that would want to be a part of this.
Blaeser: Is the goal to put out a step-by-step model for other school districts to follow for wrap-around services, social-emotional learning, etc.?
Campbell: Correct. We feel like we're onto something here looking at things a little differently. I don't know that it's a step-by-step model because every community is a little bit different, but there are some basic things – like how we're reaching our students and our families living in trauma – that we believe we can share.
Our work will always be in Akron, but we want to be able to share it with those wondering, “Is this for us?” Because it's hard. I don't want to sugar-coat everything. We were pleasantly surprised how our first year went through all the struggles. We feel like there's something pretty powerful and magical that we can share with other people, and I do go back to what LeBron says, that it’s saving lives.
Blaeser: I had the chance to visit Akron a couple months ago, and one thing community leaders there shared is that hope is truly the heartbeat of Akron. You've grown up in Akron, as well, and I'm wondering what role you see the idea of hope playing in the I Promise School?
Campbell: One hundred percent, I would agree with that statement. And I would even say it goes beyond Akron, but especially in northeastern Ohio and Akron, we've always been the “mistake by the lake.” I mean there's so many jokes about being from here. But we're really proud of this community.
You bring in this philosophy, this foundation, this team of teachers and this group – this larger family unit – that takes you where you are, and it doesn’t judge you. It doesn't matter if I'm talking to a dad and he served time in prison or even if I’m talking to a dad that's going into jail – not judging, but understanding, talking, and giving that family and that student an outlet to be honest. That's the first piece of giving them hope because they found someone that cares about them, doesn't judge them, and wants to be part of their life, wants to be part of their dream. And that hope, that is the one thing that every school, every community, can give.
I’ve seen parents who have never been educated past the eighth grade walk across the stage at our GED ceremony. They have the belief that they can change the world. They’re holding homes for the first time; they're holding jobs. We provided opportunities, but first and foremost, we provided an outlet for them to be who they are, say who they are, and be who they want to be. That hope right there – that’s the secret sauce, it really is.
Blaeser: It seems so far like the students are testing pretty well. Looking ahead, and as you welcome more students into the I Promise School, do you see that positive trajectory continuing, especially given that you have switched to online learning in the coronavirus pandemic?
Campbell: It was printed in the New York Times that we had ninety-nine percent growth, which is incredible. The first year, all the students had just been pulled from their home school [to come to I Promise] – so that surprised us. I wasn't ready for that. But now I believe that that's what we will continue to see. We're learning what we need to do in order to break through and help students persevere through their trauma, while also continuing to learn.
You also bring up a great concern that I'm actually dealing with right now. I'll be honest, we’ve planned for a lot of things, but I never planned for what we are living through now. And if you told me six months ago that the whole world would be shutting down and I would be having to figure out how we're going to continue to educate our students, I would have told you that you were crazy. lt's still somewhat surreal what we're living through. But I believe that we're going to have to do more than online, I'm learning, and I don't know what that looks like. I guess it depends on when we’re able to gather again and to be back in school. So, I don't know if that means we go longer days – even though our days are already longer – or we give up some of our Saturdays and Sundays. I have no idea, but I'm willing to explore all options because we are going to need to make up this missed time in the classroom, and I do not believe that online learning will – it'll do a little bit – but it won't do what we need for students who are already behind.
Tran: You've worked with LeBron on a lot of projects through the LJFF, such as bike-a-thons and the Boys and Girls Club. How does this project compare to those others in terms of James’ level of commitment, and to the level of impact, that it's had on the community itself?
Campbell: So, the projects that you mentioned were all wonderful projects, but we call those projects of the past as one-and-done. The bike-a-thon is the best example. Those kids left that day and they took home a bike. We didn’t know if they had a roof over their heads, if they had a meal the next day – we knew nothing, and we did that for years. All of this came together because LeBron said, “We’re not doing anything to move the needle. We're not doing anything to create real change, and we need to be better than that.” And what we're doing now is a commitment for a lifetime. It's a commitment to a community; it's a commitment to families and students that enter our program every year, that we will be here for you on this journey of life for a lifetime.
As [James] matured through his philanthropic giving and as he grew and as he had more experiences, he was ready when we made this change to the I Promise Program and network, to commit for a lifetime, and that's the difference. You're not going to change a student or a family unit with one little, nice bike-a-thon program. You might change their life for a day, but he was ready to really dig and make a lifetime commitment, and that's what you're seeing now.
Tran: When it's all said and done, do you think James will be known more as a basketball player or a community activist?
Campbell: One hundred percent, there is no doubt in my mind, it will be his legacy and what people will talk about is the work that he's done in the community. And he's going to have thousands of people that are standing up saying, “He's changed my life. He's changed my family's life, because of his work.” There will be thousands and thousands and thousands of students that have been changed by his work. With basketball...there's another MVP that comes. But this, what he does, the fruits of his labor, these students and these families, they will beat that drum forever.
Tran: What sort of steps do you think other players or people who don’t make as much money as James can do to help their communities in the same way?
Campbell: I believe that you really can start with very little resources. And if you think about educating a student the way you think about welcoming them – hugs, talking to people, being real with students and families, doing some of those things – it doesn’t cost any money. It’s a philosophy change to say, “I'm not going to worry about arithmetic and reading between nine and three and that's all I need to focus on.” It's just changing your mindset about what that school and what that student sitting in the desk is all about. And to do most of the things that we're doing, it doesn’t cost any money. Anyone could do it.
Tran: What do you hope people in the United States, or even the world, take away from the “I PROMISE” film?
Campbell: Honestly, I hope they watch this documentary and I hope they say, “Oh my gosh, I think we can do that, too. I want to do that, too.” That's what I want people to walk away with – believe that they can, because they can.