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LeBron James' I Promise School faces tough questions about student performance

The I Promise School on West Market Street in Akron.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
The I Promise School on West Market Street in Akron.

The inaugural class of third graders at the LeBron James-supported I Promise School in Akron will soon start eighth grade, and, for each of the last three school years, none of those students have scored “proficient” in Ohio’s math proficiency test.

That fact was alarming to some Akron Board of Education members who listened to an update during their meeting Monday on the school’s progress.

Meanwhile, the school — which, by design, only takes students who are two or more years behind grade level — was placed on a state academic watchlist for schools flagged for “Additional Targeted Support and Improvement (ATSI)." To be added to the watchlist, at least one of the schools' student subgroup’s performance must be in the lowest 5% of schools in the state. At I Promise, Black students and students with disabilities meet that criteria.

The school is 60% Black and 28% of the 554 students have disabilities.

I Promise is a public school in the Akron Public Schools district, but it is supported by the LeBron James Family Foundation, which provides additional wrap-around services to students and also funds more staff to create smaller class sizes. The school also has an extended academic calendar, additional summer and at-home tutoring help, and a suite of services both in and out of school to help families with basic needs.

However, the apparent lack of improvement for most students on state tests — despite those additional resources — was a source of dismay for some on the Akron Board of Education, who received an update on the school's progress since it began in 2018 during a presentation Monday.

“Where I'm coming from is that we keep talking about the resources, the resources, the resources that we're putting into the I Promise School, and the kids at the other schools don't have anywhere near the same number of resources, and yet that the difference there is not what I would think it would be,” said Board of Education President Derrick Hall.

The school traditionally has received about $1.4 million from James' foundation per year to fund additional staff, although that number was smaller last year due to staffing shortages, said Keith Liechty-Clifford, Akron's director of school improvement. He provided data showing that the pandemic shutdown of in-person classes appears to have seriously harmed students' academic progress. National data shows those shutdowns especially hurt marginalized groups of students.

But there have been other shake-ups at I Promise beyond the pandemic. The school has had five different principals since 2018, including one principal who resigned after she reportedly struck a student. Nearly 20 teachers, intervention specialists and tutors left the building last year alone, said Pat Shipe, president of the Akron Education Association,a teachers union. A total of 57 of those staff work there.

Teachers are struggling to deal with the level of need students have and are frustrated with a lack of transparency from building administrators in dealing with problem behaviors, Shipe said. Last year, the school district changed its admissions process to reduce the number of students with learning disabilities accepted to comply with state law and union agreements, according to reporting by the Akron Beacon Journal.

More changes are needed at the school to better serve teachers and students, said Shipe.

We have the majority of students that are in the bottom tier academically, that have disabilities, that have frustrations and bring a lot to school every day with them, as we do in our other buildings,” Shipe said. “But it's magnified at the I Promise school. So there needs to be an adjustment and a different point of view on how we handle both students, how we look at and handle both student progress, student behaviors and the autonomy of teachers in the classroom to address those issues.”

The LeBron James Family Foundation in a statement said it’s committed to its partnership with Akron Public Schools.

“…this work requires a long term commitment, hard work, and a lot of love and care,” the statement reads. “And that’s what we bring each and every day because the I Promise School is more than a school. We’re here for the ups and downs, and will continue to wraparound our students and their entire families so they can be successful in school and in life, no matter the challenges and obstacles that come their way.”

Liechty-Clifford, in his presentation Monday, explained that I Promise School students are performing a little better in terms of reading and English compared to their Akron schools peers that were also in the bottom 25% of student performance, but who weren’t selected for the school. Meanwhile, I Promise students perform worse than their Akron schools peers when it comes to math.

I Promise students’ performance on Ohio’s state tests showed little growth in achievement, at least as measured by the state. Liechty-Clifford provided graphs showing that the inaugural class of third- and fourth-grade students’ English and math scores plunged since they started at the I Promise School in 2018-2019 and are only just starting to recover.

A chart showing the percentage of students meeting or exceeding proficiency in the math section of Ohio's annual state test. By reading diagonally, you can trace a single class of students' performance over the last five years, including 2019-2020, when students were not tested due to the pandemic.
Akron Public Schools
A chart showing the percentage of students meeting or exceeding proficiency in the math section of Ohio's annual state test. By reading diagonally from top right to lower left, you can trace a single class of students' performance over the last five years, including 2019-2020, when students were not tested due to the pandemic.

Stephanie Davis, who became principal in June, struck a hopeful tone in a statement provided by the LeBron James Family Foundation. She pointed to students’ “i-Ready” scores, which show students’ mastery of topics separate from tests.

“Our students have not yet met the grade-level mastery mark but they are demonstrating growth based on (i-Ready) scores,” she said. “Of our incoming 8th graders, 32% met their annual typical growth in reading while 11% met their stretch goal for the year. Despite not mastering the grade-level standards, 42% of students demonstrated growth in i-Ready math across their 7th-grade school year.

“When working with students who are achieving below grade level, growth is as important as a measure of progress as proficiency. And the type of growth that is important to us is not made overnight," she concluded. "It takes time.”

The school on its most recent state report card received one out of five stars in the achievement and early literacy categories but did earn three out of five stars in the “progress” category, meant to show student growth over time.

There are more than 160 other schools in Ohio that are on the state's academic watch list that the I Promise School was placed on recently, including Leggett Community Learning Center in Akron and four other schools in Canton and one in Cleveland.

Liechty-Clifford said he believes much more consistency will be brought to the I Promise School with Davis' leadership. SHe previously led Bridges Community Learning Center, an alternative education program, since 2014. He said Davis has already spoken to teachers about what additional support and changes they need. Meanwhile, the school also has a new instructional coach in place.

He added that next steps include more professional development and training for teachers, along with a deeper focus on analyzing data and what best teaching practices might be.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.