In 2018, basketball superstar LeBron James opened the I Promise School (IPS) in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. IPS is a joint effort between Akron Public Schools (APS), the I Promise Network, and the LeBron James Family Foundation. It’s overseen and operated by APS, the state’s seventh largest school district. But thanks to additional funding and support from the foundation, it also offers a host of resources that most district schools do not—things like free uniforms, tuition to the University of Akron when students graduate high school, and family services like GED classes and job placement assistance. The school also has some unique characteristics that are typically associated with schools of choice: an extended school day and year, a STEM curriculum, and alternative working conditions for teachers.
During the school’s inaugural year, it welcomed 240 students in third and fourth grade. The original plan was to add students and grade levels each year so that the school would serve students in grades 1–8 by 2022. But in 2019, the school announced that, although it would continue adding a grade level each year up until eighth grade, it would not add first and second grades. Students are admitted in third grade via a lottery of second graders, who must already attend APS and fall into the bottom 30 percent of reading scores. The school’s website reinforces its focus on academically struggling students by declaring its dedication “to those students who are already falling behind and in danger of falling through the cracks.” In several pieces published by the Akron Beacon Journal (ABJ), its noted that the school’s goal is to “move students forward at a rate of one and a third years’ worth of growth in one year. That would get a student who is two years behind in third grade back on track before they reach high school.”
The school’s initial results were promising. In April 2019, it announced on Twitter that 90 percent of its students had met or exceeded their expected growth in math and reading on NWEA MAP, a national computer adaptive assessment that measures academic growth over time. Coverage in USA Today called the results “extraordinary” and noted that scores at IPS increased at a rate higher than ninety-nine out of 100 schools based on NWEA norms.
As anyone who works in education will tell you, though, multiple measures matter when it comes to evaluating a school’s performance. To their credit, most media outlets recognized that. The New York Times pointed out that “time will tell whether the gains are sustainable and how they stack up against rigorous state standardized tests at the end of the year.” And they were right. State test results would matter immensely.
But those showed promise, too. When state report cards were released in the fall of 2019, IPS had earned an overall grade of C. In the age of grade inflation, folks accustomed to nothing but A’s might be displeased. Under the circumstances, however, a C was actually a good thing. It meant that, overall, the school was meeting the state’s expectations. In fact, for a brand-new school that was purposely targeting students performing a year or two behind grade level, a C was pretty impressive. It was even more praiseworthy considering the school’s demographics: The overwhelming majority of students were economically disadvantaged, 29 percent were students with disabilities, 15 percent were English language learners, and over 80 percent were minorities.
A more detailed breakdown of state report card components showed a mixed bag. The school earned an F on the achievement component, which measures students’ overall performance on state assessments. But it also earned an A on the progress component, which determines the growth of students based on their past performance and gives credit when students—including those below grade level—exceed growth expectations. In English language arts, IPS students made progress similar to statewide expectations. In math, however, students made more progress than expected. The school also earned high marks for progress in certain subgroups: a B for students identified as the lowest 20 percent statewide in reading, math, or science, and another B for students with disabilities.
The big takeaway after one year was that both state test results and in-house exams measuring growth indicated that students at IPS weren’t just learning, they were learning a lot. If that kind of growth continued, the school would be well on its way to meeting its goal.
And then the pandemic hit.
At IPS, as elsewhere, it had a massive negative impact on student academic performance. School closures, remote learning, and a plethora of other issues combined to produce whopping learning losses, especially among students from disadvantaged communities—the very same students that IPS makes it a point to serve. IPS students were already years behind their peers before the pandemic hit. Learning loss of any kind would be catastrophic to their outcomes. Add to that the fact that IPS was just a year and a half old when the pandemic hit (staff were still trying to establish the school’s culture) and was experiencing some leadership turmoil (the school lost its founding principal during its third year and then had three interim principals in just a year and a half), and it would’ve been a miracle for IPS students to escape the pandemic academically unscathed.
Here, as elsewhere, the pandemic also made it more difficult—though not impossible—to keep track of results over time via publicly available data. State tests weren’t administered in 2019–20, so there was no way to easily compare the school’s second year to its first. State tests were administered in 2020–21, but ratings weren’t assigned, so the IPS report card from that year is similarly unhelpful.
But there is one important exception to the pandemic era’s dearth of data: Ohio maintained its performance index measure, which considers the state test results of every student and awards schools points based on the state’s six achievement levels. The higher a student’s achievement, the more points the school earns. For example, a student who scores at the advanced level earns their school 1.2 points, while a student testing at the basic level (just below proficient) earns 0.6 points. Schools weren’t graded on performance index during the pandemic, but the state did calculate it during the years that tests were administered. During the 2018–19 school year, when IPS was showing lots of promise (pun intended), it posted a performance index score of 53.5. Two years later, in the wake of the pandemic, IPS’s performance index score had dropped to 27.5, a loss of nearly half. The school’s score rebounded slightly in 2021–22 to 38, but that’s still far below the score of its inaugural year.
To be clear, IPS isn’t the only school that saw its performance index scores plummet. In fact, between 2018–19 and 2021–22, average performance index scores dropped for the state overall, for districts, and for every student subgroup. Most notably, there were double-digit declines among economically disadvantaged students, Black students, and students with disabilities. As noted earlier, these students make up a majority of the IPS population.
Because the performance index scores at IPS show a similar trend to districts and schools throughout the rest of the state, it seems reasonable to say that the lackluster results coming out of IPS could be attributed to the pandemic. That’s especially true in light of the school’s demographics and the fact that it specifically enrolls students who are academically behind. Of all the schools in Ohio, IPS might have the strongest argument that the pandemic derailed its efforts, and that it shouldn’t be judged too harshly on recent results.
But maybe not. As a public school under the umbrella of Akron Public Schools, IPS received a share of the billions of dollars in federal relief funding that was sent to states to combat learning loss. And while other schools might not have known what to do with all that money, IPS should have. First, because the school leaders should have been accustomed to being financially flush. The LeBron James Family Foundation spent roughly $2 million during the school’s first year, including startup costs, and committed to spending around $2 million or more per year once the school had grown to capacity. Unlike a standard district school, IPS has always had extra money at its disposal. Second, one of the school’s defining features is that it offers students an extended day and school year. Research shows that one of the best learning loss remedies is extra time, including time before and after school and during the summer. While other schools might have struggled to figure out how to provide kids with instruction during periods when buildings were typically closed and teachers were gone, IPS didn’t have that problem. Extra time was built into its DNA.
And then there’s the wraparound services. Another defining feature of IPS is that it offers students more than just an education. It also offers counseling, health checkups, food pantries, clothing, tutoring (which, when done correctly, is another evidence-backed remedy for learning loss), and even housing. Lacking access to these services can impact students’ academic outcomes in both the short and long term. For students at IPS, though, this lack of access shouldn’t have existed—at least not as often as it did for their peers in other schools. And while it’s true that IPS was especially vulnerable to pandemic-related impacts because of its demographics, the school was and is set up to blunt those impacts in some pretty big ways. All things considered, it seems reasonable to expect IPS, of all schools, to catch its kids up at a pretty rapid pace.
But that doesn’t appear to be happening. At least not according to the ABJ, which recently published a piece entitled “Promises kept? Akron school board questions I Promise School’s poor test scores.” It covers a recent school board meeting where board members were presented with academic data from IPS. The opening sentence of the article is a doozy: “This fall’s class of eighth graders at the I Promise School hasn’t had a single student pass the state’s math test since the group was in the third grade.” Meanwhile, two of the school’s biggest student subgroups—Black students and those with disabilities, subgroups that made notable progress during the school’s first year—are testing in the bottom 5 percent of the state.
The coverage from the ABJ noted that, although the school receives the same base funding as any other Akron public school, the LeBron James Family Foundation has given “up to $1.4 million each year for additional tutors and more teachers in younger grades to lower class sizes.” That additional funding means that, not only did IPS likely have more money at its disposal than other Akron schools, the money was designated for academic supports that should have gone a long way to catching students up. And yet, according to the ABJ, “comparing I Promise students to their peers who qualified for the school but attend elsewhere shows that I Promise students are doing worse in some cases, despite the extra staff and wraparound services.”
APS officials didn’t offer the state test results for students who met IPS admissions criteria but didn’t attend the school. That’s a shame, as such a comparison would shine a much brighter light on how IPS is doing. But the district did offer another form of data that makes it possible to compare. Like many districts in Ohio, Akron uses iReady assessments as an internal measure of student growth. And according to Keith Liechty-Clifford, the district’s director of school improvement, IPS students in grades 3–8 performed two points better in reading but six points worse in math than other district students who were also in the bottom 25 percent.
Unfortunately, it gets even worse. The ABJ notes that Liechty-Clifford presented data at the school board meeting showing that, while some grades of students have improved over time based on state test results, others have lost ground. Last year’s sixth graders, for instance, went backward, from 7 percent proficient in reading in fifth grade, to just 2 percent in sixth grade. Last year’s fifth grade students did better—they went from less than 6 percent proficient in reading in fourth grade to 13 percent in fifth. But that’s still not comforting. If only 13 percent of fifth graders can pass the state test, and that’s considered a bright spot for the school, then we have some problems. Especially if just 2 percent of students in the next grade level up are also proficient.
It should go without saying that all these data weave a big red flag. In response, the school’s new principal, Stephanie Davis, provided a statement via the foundation. According to the ABJ, Davis claims that there are data that “wasn’t provided” at the board meeting and which show that students are, indeed, growing. She notes that, although students might not be proficient and on grade level, according to their i-Ready scores, 42 percent grew at least a year’s worth in the last year in math, and an additional 4 percent reached a “stretch” goal beyond that. Meanwhile, 32 percent of students met a goal for typical annual growth in English, and 11 percent exceeded it.
In her statement, Davis also emphasized that “the type of growth that is important to us is not made overnight.” And she’s not wrong. Growth does take time. Especially when we’re talking about proficiency, which—as Davis acknowledges—is “based on mastering grade-level standards.” When students are behind, mastering grade-level standards is far more difficult. That’s why it’s crucial to consider both proficiency and growth when evaluating school performance.
Still, the data cited by Davis should give us pause. First, that’s because they represent the percentage of students who, over the course of the last year, grew a year’s worth in math or met a goal for “typical annual growth” in English. In lay terms, that means they grew the amount they were supposed to over the course of a year. Given how many schools in Ohio fail to ensure that their students grow a year’s worth in reading and math, that’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s also not something that should be treated as impressive. To do what IPS promised to do, kids need to make more than one year’s worth of growth each year—specifically, one and a third. APS staff knows that. “We signed up for how we attract, who we allow in, and there can’t be any excuses for why they don’t perform at that rate,” Tamiko Hatcher, the district’s director of specialty programs, told the ABJ in 2022. By Davis’s own admission, though, only 4 percent of kids in math and 11 percent in English grew more than a year. Furthermore, more than half of IPS students in both reading and math fell short of a year’s growth.
Second, although schools might need time, that doesn’t mean kids can spare it. The fourth graders from the school’s inaugural year will start high school this fall. They spent five years of their lives at IPS, a school that promised to catch them up by high school. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. In fact, according to the ABJ, only 11 percent of the school’s first graduating class of eighth graders was proficient on the state’s ELA test.
As someone who used to teach ninth grade English, that number gives me heartburn. And as someone who grew up in Akron and still considers it my hometown, I’m deeply concerned. I understand the outsized impact of the pandemic on student outcomes. And I don’t think it’s fair to ignore that the pandemic likely played a significant role in getting IPS to the troubling place in which it now seems to live. But IPS, far more than most schools, was designed to blunt out-of-school factors. It’s always been set up to give kids the kind of intensive, in-depth intervention they need. If, when school report cards come out this fall, IPS isn’t well on its way to a significant and meaningful rebound, then it will be well past time for the school to answer some very tough questions.
 The PI calculations award zeros when students do not participate in state assessments; if the number of untested students at IPS was significantly higher than normal (which was the case statewide in 2020–21), that may have contributed to depressed PI scores.