For all the things that LeBron James gets too much attention for—a tossed-off tweet or Instagram post, a postgame comment, the quality of his acting in not-quite-sequels to iconic live-action crossover Hollywood blockbusters—there’s at least one aspect of this very public superstar’s public life about which we should probably be talking much more than we do.
This dude built a school.
Okay, so no, he didn’t literally build it, but the I Promise School is undeniably the result of LeBron’s singular vision, more-than-an-athlete ambition, and arguably unrivaled cultural and financial cachet. Opened in the summer of 2018, the I Promise School serves some of the most at-risk elementary school kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. As adjectives go, innovative sells short the school’s educational philosophy; visionary gets closer to describing the holistic approach not only to classroom instruction, but to ensuring its students are nurtured mind, body, and soul. It sounds like hyperbole, until you see it for yourself.
I had the chance to do just that in the winter of 2018, a few months after it opened. Some of the tangible initiatives that set the I Promise School apart are obvious enough: The brightly decorated hallways and classrooms designed to inspire; the free breakfasts and lunches and clothing closet that ensure no student will go hungry or cold as long as they’re attending; and of course, the teachers, a collection of educators whose dedication is nothing short of humbling. But there’s so much more, resources that the average school administrator wouldn’t even think to dream of.
A partnership with a local food bank stocks the shelves of a pantry that parents with financial need can shop to make sure there’s enough to eat at home. Those same parents can also take advantage of on-site GED or ESL classes, invaluable options in an increasingly diverse population with limited career opportunities. Those services are complimented by the school’s family resource center, which offers legal and career guidance, and counseling for issues ranging from mental health to domestic abuse.
They are, in other words, the sort of resources every child and every family should have access to, and without which many kids will struggle to meet their academic potential. LeBron’s own grade-school experience serves as his stated motivation: the 80 (or so) days of school he missed in fourth grade are an indelible part of his biography, the reality of a kid raised by a struggling single parent, whose life—if not for the group of extended family, friends, and community members who looked out for him—might have turned out very differently. With I Promise, he’s now helping provide the village necessary to raise so many children.
The school has gotten a fair amount of attention, of course, but there’s a sense of taking for granted both its impact and uniqueness — this is a public school, don’t forget. There really is nothing quite like I Promise. That said, it’s easy to forget that the physical school isn’t LeBron’s first foray into educational initiatives that have the potential to change hundreds of lives. Back in 2015, he announced a partnership with the University of Akron that would fund $42 million in scholarships for more than 1,000 underserved students at his hometown university. In January of this year, the I Promise initiative was expanded with a new scholarship program that covers not only tuition but also room and board.
Again, this is life-changing stuff, with the potential to impact entire communities. If we’ve failed to fully appreciate it, perhaps it’s because of the scale; it’s all too big and impersonal to really connect with. That’s where seeing it in person helps. If you ever have a chance to visit the school — less than a mile up West Market Street from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where LeBron first exploded onto the national scene — you’ll see it in the physical building, in the words and actions of the teachers and staff, and on the faces of those kids.
The day I visited, it was another face and voice that stuck with me. Cleveland Browns receiver Jarvis Landry was there that day as well, one of a number of elite athletes and entertainers who’ve come through since the school opened. What struck me was not the impact that Landry had on the kids, but the impact the school had on him. Though not on LeBron’s level as far as fame or finances, he’s still a six-time Pro Bowler, one of the best players in the country’s biggest sport. And yet he was clearly, massively humbled by the experience.
Calling LeBron an “idol of mine,” Landry said he was blown away by the realization that “an athlete took this step, to change so many lives.” Humbling, inspiring, destiny-altering. That’s impact. It remains worthy of our attention.