Basketball star LeBron James’ Wheels for Education/I PROMISE initiative has pledged millions of dollars to help poor Akron kids go to the University of Akron. Can he keep his promise to Akron? asks Jesse Washington on FiveThirtyEight.
Theresa Magee, a supermarket clerk, is hopeful.
Her daughter Krystle, 32, who never finished high school, is taking free GED classes paid for by James’ foundation. Krystle’s 10-year-old daughter, Arieonna Maxwell, is in the Wheels for Education/I PROMISE program, which is reserved for kids with low reading scores. The children receive a constant stream of recorded phone calls, letters and website messages from James; after-school tutoring; and trips to places such as the symphony, a TV station, a toy design firm, an amusement park, and Cavs games.
Born to a 16-year-old single mother, James missed most of fourth grade. Then a middle-class couple, Frankie and Pam Walker, took him in to their home. “James shared a room with one of their three children and was absorbed into the family’s emphasis on school, chores, sports, homework, punctuality and responsibility — the kind of values James’ kids recite in their promise.”
“I promise,” the children say in unison, “to go to school, to do all my homework, to listen to my teachers, because they will help me learn.
“To ask questions, and to find answers. To never give up, no matter what.
“To always try my best, to be helpful and respectful to others, to live a healthy life by eating right and being active.
“To make good choices for myself. To have fun.
“And above all else, to finish school!”
The foundation doesn’t release data on results, but there’s been very slight improvement in Akron’s very low test scores since the first group was identified for help four years ago.
Dr. Robert Balfanz, who has studied high-poverty schools for 20 years as director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said James’ program could use more focused academic interventions during the regular school day.
Research has shown that out-of-school activities are helpful, he said. But it must be combined with changes to the curriculum, better training for teachers, and one-on-one monitoring of students’ attendance and participation.
The state has cut funding for after-school tutoring, a key part of James’ program, but the foundation has pledged to make sure its students get extra help.