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Is LeBron James' New School Really the First of Its Kind?

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The opening of LeBron James' public school in Akron, Ohio, has lots of people in education circles swooning. The school in the the NBA star's hometown has been described in national media as daring, cutting-edge, and the first of its kind.

But is the school, spearheaded by the NBA titan to serve at-risk students with a STEM-focused curriculum and extensive wrap-around services, reallyunlike any other school?

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Its principal, Brandi Davis, thinks so.

As she told NPR: "[T]he I Promise School is unique because not only are we a STEM-designated school by the state of Ohio, but we have trauma-informed support because we are truly into educating the entire child, the whole child, focusing not just on their academics, but also on their social, emotional needs, as well. And then I feel the missing link in public education is family wraparound support."

Advocates of traditional public schools are cheering the fact that the new school is part of Akron Public Schools, and not an independent charter.

"LeBron James could have followed the well-worn path of other celebrities by putting money into a charter school," wrote Diane Ravitch, an education historian and staunch advocate of traditional schools, on her blog. "But, no, he partnered with the Akron public schools to open a public school. Good on LeBron!"

What Is the LeBron James 'I Promise School'?

The I Promise School, which will eventually serve 1st through 8th grades, is exclusively for students who are academically behind. The school—with financial backing from the LeBron James Family Foundation—is pledging to pull out all the stops. Among its offerings:

  • Longer school days and school year;
  • Curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math;
  • Free college tuition to the University of Akron for students who graduate high school; 
  • Food pantry for families; and
  • GED and job search support for parents.

All students will receive free bicycles and Chromebooks. And the school's supports don't stop with families. Teachers will get help too, reports the Los Angeles Times:

"To truly provide emotional and psychological services for at-risk children and their families requires well-trained and supported teachers. The I Promise School gives teachers access to psychological services. Every Wednesday afternoon will be reserved for career development. James even hired a personal trainer to work with teachers who want a guided workout."

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But the idea of educating the "whole child"—that schools must address the range of non-academic factors that get in the way of student achievement—has been around for decades.

Both charter schools and traditional public schools have built in wrap-around services for students and their families, which is the central idea behind the community schools movement. To name check just a few: New York's Harlem Children's Zone, the Jennings school district in Missouri, and Cincinnati's community learning centers.

STEM programming has also been embraced by many public and private schools that serve low-income students.

And LeBron follows the path of other deep-pocketed celebrities who've opened schools. Hip-hop artist and music producer Sean "Diddy" Combs and rapper Pitbull have opened charter schools in New York City and Miami, respectively. Sports stars Deion Sanders, Andre Agassi, Kevin Johnson, and Jalen Rose all founded charter schools.

Celebrities support schools in other ways. Chance the Rapper, for example, has given generously to the Chicago Public Schools. 

Perhaps most analogous to LeBron's I Promise School is the one that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan opened in East Palo Alto, Calif. The Primary School is a tuition-free, private school for low-income families which provides extensive healthcare to students and their families. (Chan, who is the CEO of the school, is a pediatrician.)

So how does LeBron's new school actually stand apart?

"I don't know if it's different, but it's following a promising and fairly early trend," said Julia Freeland Fisher, the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, which specializes in the concept of "disruptive innovation" in education and health care.

But, she said, that somewhat misses the point: "I care less whether it's unique and more if it creates a proof point, and an infrastructure in the school system, and starts to pressure policymakers to put money behind poverty relief."

What's Unique About the I Promise School?

There are a couple of ways in which the I Promise School stands out, said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA who has studied urban education for three decades. First, it's not a charter school. Second, the I Promise School is unusual in the breadth and depth of the services it will offer.

"I think the full package together makes it a very attractive school," said Noguera. "A lot of urban schools, because there's been so much disinvestment in education, can't offer after-school programs or a full range of services. It probably means that [James'] financial commitments won't be a one shot."

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While the investment from the LeBron James Family Foundation, which is funding much of the non-academic resources, means that this idea may be difficult to replicate without a wealthy benefactor, the school could still have a broader impact beyond the students it's serving.

"It's shedding light on something that people have been doing for decades, that research has showed is promising, but is still underexplored," said Fisher. "The fact that this is making national headlines in this news cycle, is exciting."

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Photos:

(At top): Basketball star LeBron James speaks at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, on July 30. The school is supported by the LeBron James Family Foundation, and is run by the Akron Public Schools. --Phil Long/AP

(Middle): The opening ceremony for the I Promise School draws a crowd, and aerial coverage by the Goodyear blimp. --Phil Long/AP

(Bottom): The lobby of the I Promise School features a display of LeBron James' basketball shoes on surrounding walls. --Phil Long/AP

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