Documentɑɾy Reveals ChaƖƖenges Inside LeBɾon James’ School for VuƖnerable Students

LeBron James and Akron Public Schools opened the I Promise School with great fanfare on July 30, 2018.

But what happened after TV news cameras stopped rolling, James left to join the Los Angeles Lakers, and the faculty and staff had to actually implement their plan of how to make a difference in the lives of 223 of the most at-risk 3rd and 4th graders in the system?

Documentary Reveals Challenges Inside LeBron James' School for Vulnerable Students

That is the subject of “I Promise,” a documentary now streaming on the YouTube Originals channel. The project originally premiered in 2020 as a short-form series on the streaming platform Quibi. Stitched together with additional footage and a new epilogue, the now feature-length film chronicles the challenging first year of the experimental school.

It opens with a sobering statistic: In the U.S., a student drops out of school once every 26 seconds.

“It’s almost like when you grow up in the inner city or you grow up in the projects, no one cares about you,” James says, explaining his motivation for opening the school. “The goal and mission of the school is for the kids to feel like they’re superheroes.”

The documentary, produced by James and Maverick Carter’s entertainment firm The SpringHill Company, could’ve easily turned into a vanity project. Indeed, the NBA superstar appears often in the film, though most of his onscreen time is limited to the first 15 minutes. Fortunately, everybody involved recognized watching him talk about the school and hear others praise him for it does not make for a compelling film.

Instead, director Marc Levin was determined to deliver an accurate representation of the school’s inaugural year, warts and all. Every feel-good story, after all, has its share of obstacles and failures. His decision to narrow his focus to a handful of students and capture the experience through their eyes is an effective one.

LeBron James' I Promise School Lives Up to Its Name, Shows Tremendous Promise

One of them is Vincent, a 4th grader who was bullied and became so disruptive at his last school, his teacher made him sit in the corner by himself. As a result, he showed no interest in learning.

“My tears were dripping. It was like a pool of water,” says Vincent, describing the first day at I Promise School. “I hate this school.”

There’s also Nate, a 3rd grader who has witnessed violence at a young age and walks out of class whenever he gets frustrated. Classmate Dae’Shaunna is prone to throwing temper tantrums and getting into fights. They’re joined by Scout, another 3rd grader, who is so embarrassed by her reading difficulties she won’t try to read in front of people.

LeBron's new documentary tells the story of his I Promise School in Akron

Levin directs with a deft touch, presenting the tremendous challenges each of them has already faced in their young lives with emotion and even humor. If you don’t become invested in their stories, you’re not paying attention. But how do you put these kids on the right path? Turns out, the answer isn’t as simple as sending them to a school with LeBron James’ name on it.

“It’s not instant oatmeal we’re creating here,” James acknowledges. “You can’t just put the oatmeal pack in the bowl, put it in the microwave and a minute later, you’re ready to go. We’re OK with dealing with the process.”

That process is guided by a STEM curriculum, trauma-informed teaching, and an emphasis on the idea that the entire school is one big family. The approach means teachers gaining the students’ trust by encouraging them to share their feelings openly, doling out a hug or high-five when needed, and the school providing the support the families need so the kids can concentrate on their studies.

"I Was One of Those Kids": LeBron James Talks About His 'I Promise School' for At-Risk Children - EssentiallySports

It doesn’t always work. There are skirmishes out on the playground, outbursts in the classrooms and one kid is put into handcuffs. Most concerning, only 11 students in the entire school pass the practice version of the state-required reading test that sends them through to the next grade.

LeBron's new documentary tells the story of his I Promise School in Akron

It’s not instant oatmeal we’re creating here. You can’t just put the oatmeal pack in the bowl, put it in the microwave and a minute later, you’re ready to go. We’re OK with dealing with the process.

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