I’m a fan of Atlantic writer Alia Wong and her stewardship of the magazine’s education coverage, even if it does seem to tilt against reform. But her recent piece on the new I PROMISE school created by basketball superstar LeBron James in his hometown of Akron exposes a little anti-charter bias and misses a few key insights.
Listing “5 Reasons” why James’ school is unique, she cites the fact that “it’s a public school.” She contrasts I PROMISE with charter schools that some other celebrities have founded.
Alas, charters are also public schools—publicly authorized and publicly funded. They are open to all and free. Only anti-reform diehards in denial insist charters aren’t public, so it’s disappointing to see a respected, national publication affirming this false narrative.
Because it’s not a charter school, Wong further suggests that I PROMISE is less likely to “alienate the local teachers union and district administrators.” She adds that it will be easier to extend the lessons learned from James’ school into the larger district.
Perhaps, but the Center for Reinventing Public Education has studied plenty of district schools that collaborate with charter schools and apply lessons learned from them. The main obstacles to even greater collaboration are, in fact, the unions and administrators Wong worries about alienating.
Her second big reason why James’ school is unique is that it has “huge ambitions” to be the No. 1 school system in the country. Kudos to team James for setting a high bar, but I suspect a few of America’s 14,000 school districts and charter management organizations share that aspiration. Time will tell if I PROMISE meets its goal.
Her third big reason is that I PROMISE “wants to be involved in every aspect of a student’s life—not just academics.” This sounds a lot like “community schools,” which have been around for decades. I PROMISE may go much further in supporting students, thanks to James’ largesse, but it’s not really a new or unique idea.
Her fourth big reason is that I PROMISE “helps provide for the basic needs of families.” Again, lots of schools aspire to this, but they don’t all have a financial supporter like James.
Some schools, however, take extra steps to accommodate struggling families, for example, providing washing machines on-site so low-income children and families can do their laundry at school. Educators have learned that poor kids sometimes skip school for the simple reason that their uniforms are dirty and they don’t want to be mocked or bullied.
Wong’s fifth and final reason is that James himself is directly involved. Given that this is the basketball star’s only school, that is indeed one unique thing about the I PROMISE school. But he’s far from the first wealthy benefactor to take a hands-on role in a school.
Chicago businessman John Rogers started Ariel Community Academy, a South Side Chicago neighborhood public school, over 20 years ago. He funds extended day, wraparound services, college scholarships and other school supports. He is on site frequently and personally helped create the school’s unique financial literacy curriculum.
Wong did not mention that James’ school has extended learning time, a common feature of charter schools. I would be interested to learn how I PROMISE gets around local labor agreements while remaining a district school. The Fordham Institute chronicles some other “charter-like” features, while applauding James for his commitment.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
James’ school deviates from both charter and district schools in at least one notable way: It’s the only school I have ever heard of that gives students free bicycles. That’s a pretty neat idea with a retro appeal in an age when some districts think every kid needs a laptop.
There’s much more to like about I PROMISE from restorative justice approaches to discipline to robust professional development for teachers. The fact that the school explicitly serves students who are behind also sets it apart.
In some ways, I PROMISE represents a triumph for education reform as the school taps into innovative approaches pioneered by change-oriented school systems like the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York and KIPP.
Ultimately, however, the thing that is most unique about I PROMISE is that the school has the critical things underperforming children and their teachers really need: enough money, time and support to do it right.