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Mon 25
Basketball star whose major victory was building a school in his hometown

Basketball star whose major victory was building a school in his hometown

When LeBron James inaugurated a public school of excellence in the United States did not aim at his own success, but at transforming local illiteracy rates

Vitor Camargo

Growing up in the U.S. may not be easy when you don’t have access to the necessary family, social or educational structure in order to develop. That is true even for those who managed to do well in life, and, in the words of LeBron James, “overcome the statistics”.

James is recognized nowadays as one of the best athletes in his generation. Three-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic medal winner, he is considered one of the best all-time basketball players, next to legends such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. At 33 years of age, he is also the sixth highest-paid athlete in the world, according to a survey done by Forbes magazine.

Still, he never forgot his origins: in late July, James inaugurated the I Promise School, a public institution he is financing in his hometown. On the day of its inauguration, called by James the most important day in his life, he took a big step towards ensuring young people in his native city did not need to go through the same hardships he faced years earlier.


James was born in 1984 in Akron, Ohio, a town of 200 thousand inhabitants located at about 50 kilometers from Cleveland. Son of Gloria, a teenage mother, and a father with problems with the police who was never part of his life, LeBron James was raised in the poorest areas of Akron, many times with no roof over his head nor food on the table.

“It was a challenge”, James remembered in an interview during the inauguration of I Promise. “It was mentally challenging. No 8 or 9-year old kid should have stress”, he continued.

James attended public schools, but his problems at home prevented him from dedicating himself: “School didn’t mean anything to me. It was a surprise to me when I woke up and I was actually going to school. There were just a lot of empty days, empty nights and just kind of a no-future thought process.”

When he was on fourth grade, however, James and his mother moved to the other side of town, farther away from his school. Public transportation did not serve the area, which made him lose 83 school days on that year, almost half of the total amount. That was when people starting noticing the hardships, and offered help.

“Any time I would show up to school the teachers would always tell my mom that when he shows up he’s one of the best students”, he remembers. “They just hoped I could show up more.”

A small push

One such person was Frank Walker and his son, Frank Jr, with whom LeBron James soon created strong friendship bonds. When the future star missed almost all of his classes, Walker invited him to live with his family, so he could be closer to his school. That is also when he got into basketball.

“If I hadn’t known them, I would not be where I am today. And, more importantly: I may not be giving back to our community”, said James.

Giving back, by the way, is what motivates I Promise School. One of the demands before the institution was put into practice was that it should operate as a public school, accessible to anyone. The project was then developed in a partnership with organs from Akron city hall. The main goal is aiding children considered in a risk situation, those whose levels of reading are one or two years behind the rest of the students.

The initiative arrived in a delicate moment of the education in Akron. According to a report by Ohio state’s education bureau, the student program of the city’s public schools received an F grade – the worst possible. Another report indicates that students from the city’s lower strata have much worse development levels that the rest of the population.

Money is the main factor in this disparity: according to the same report, in 2016 Akron’s public schools had little over 10 thousand dollars a year per student, an amount way below the county average for cities of the same size. Therefore, James’ financing, through his foundation (LeBron James Family Foundation) has become fundamental to the project: thanks to him, the school is able to attract and keep good teachers.

“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”, tells journalist Tania Ganguli. Besides, students who graduate at the school will have their monthly fees at Akron University paid for by the LeBron James Family Foundation.

Outside the classroom

The project stipulates that the school must be a support and welcoming environment which children do not often have at their homes. “We want to create a family environment, not just a work environment”, explained James during the institution’s inauguration. “Sometimes you just get tired for viewing school as a chore. We want to  create a family environment, where you’d want to be”.

This concern on creating a healthier environment is not restricted to the children. The school also offers to the students’ families several other services: parents are assisted in finding jobs, those who wish to pick up their studies where they left them can obtain GED programs, and even has a food supply for professionals who wish to aid in preparing meals.

“I think the missing link in public education is family support. Because our students come to school and are worried at home … We want to create this safe, secure and caring and loving environment for our families and our students so our children can focus on education”, said Brandi Davis, I Promise director and a veteran at Akron’s public teaching service. “We are going to be that groundbreaking school that will be a nationally recognized model for urban and public school excellence”, concludes Brandi.

“Shut up and dribble”

I Promise’s inauguration comes at a disturbing moment in the U.S., in which social debates related to poverty and racial inequality are coming back to the forefront.

One of the more expressive athletes in world sports scene, LeBron James has been criticized by certain sectors of American society for his social and political activism, as well as his criticism of president Donald Trump: in a notorious episode, Fox News presenter Laura Ingraham said that LeBron should “shut up and dribble”, echoing the feeling that an athlete should only stick to its job.

But all of LeBron James’ accomplishments point directly to the opposite to “shutting up and dribbling”; James claims that precisely due to his success in the courts he is now able to be heard, and that voice should be used to channel and encourage changes.

“I have a voice, I have a platform. And I have so many kids — not only kids, but also adults and everybody that kind of look for guidance and look for someone to kind of lead them in a time where they feel like their voice isn’t powerful. And when you see something that’s unjust or you see something that’s wrong, see something that’s trying to divide us as a race or as a country, then I feel like my voice can be heard and speak volumes”, James justified in a recent interview to ESPN.

It is no coincidence that I Promise is filled with murals and references to athletes who refused to limit themselves to the sports they practiced: Muhammad Ali, legendary boxer and one of the most important figures in the racial integration movement in the U.S.; Jackie Robinson, first black baseball player to play at the MLB, the country’s top baseball league; and Jesse Owens, famous for winning four Olympic gold medals in Berlin, in 1936, debunking Nazi Germany and its belief in Arian superiority.

“What James wants in 20 years is a meaningful change in the city’s adult-literacy rates. And its crime rate. And its median income. These are the statistics James wants to be a part of”, said Brian Windhorst, ESPN journalist who has been covering James since his college basketball days. “A bigger and more significant legacy for LeBron James than anything he could ever achieve merely by playing basketball.”



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