Last year, NBA superstar LeBron James opened I Promise School (IPS), a school for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. In its first year (2018–19), IPS served 240 students in grades three and four. This year it expanded to include fifth grade, and now serves 344 students.
IPS is a joint effort between Akron Pubic Schools (APS), the I Promise Network, and the LeBron James Family Foundation. It’s not a charter school; it’s overseen by APS, the state’s sixth largest school district, and holds a lottery to admit students. But it also offers a host of things most district schools don’t, such as 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 more often associated with schools of choice: an extended school day and year, a STEM curriculum, and alternative working conditions for teachers, such as required home visits.
The school’s grand opening in July 2018 made national headlines and earned James a considerable amount of well-deserved praise. There were plenty of hot takes to go along with the praise, including some folks who saw an opportunity to take potshots at their least favorite education policies, namely charter schools. But by and large, most people were excited about the prospect of another high quality school, and eager to see if IPS could follow through on its promise (pun intended) to change the trajectory of hundreds of kids’ lives.
The first round of results arrived this spring. The school announced on Twitter that 90 percent of its students had met or exceeded their expected growth in math and reading. These results were based on NWEA MAP, a national computer adaptive assessment that measures academic growth over time. Coverage in USA Today called the results “extraordinary.” The New York Times offered additional details: In reading, both the third and fourth grade classes initially tested in the 1st percentile. MAP results showed that third graders had improved to the 9th percentile, and fourth graders to the 16th. In math, third graders moved from the 1st percentile to the 18th, and fourth graders jumped from the 2nd percentile to the 30th.
USA Today was right to call these results extraordinary. But as significant as they are, they are only one measure. Even NWEA will tell you that multiple measures matter. To be considered successful, IPS was going to have to do more than demonstrate growth on diagnostic measurements.
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.” Locally, the Akron Beacon Journal noted in August that state test results would be “unlikely to show the school in a positive light.” The piece quoted APS school improvement coordinator Keith Liechty-Clifford saying, “We’re prepared to receive an F” because “our students come to us low, and it’s going to take some time.” But he also noted the school expected to show growth, and that “we are all operating under the belief we will not be an F school.”
Well, it’s mid-October in Ohio. That means school report cards have been out for a month or so. So, did IPS get an F?
Nope. In its first year, IPS earned an overall grade of C. For a brand new school that purposely targeted students who were performing a year or two behind grade level, that’s very impressive. It’s even more praiseworthy considering the school’s demographics: 100 percent of the student population is economically disadvantaged, 29 percent are students with disabilities, 15 percent are English language learners, and more than 80 percent are minorities.
A more detailed breakdown of state report card components shows a mixed bag. On the achievement component, which measures how well students perform on state assessments, IPS earned that F it feared. That’s not entirely surprising, considering the achievement measure looks to see how well students have mastered grade level material, and most of I Promise’s students entered the school far below grade level. IPS still has plenty of room to grow in this area, and their teachers and staff are fully committed to getting the job done. In the coming years, it will be important to keep an eye on whether the school’s Performance Index (PI) scores increase. If IPS is able raise its PI score each year, that will be a sign that kids are headed in the right direction.
The progress component, meanwhile, determines the growth of students based on their past performance. Unlike the achievement component, progress gives credit when students—including those below grade level—make significant growth during the year. IPS really shined on the progress component, earning an A. For reference, Akron Public Schools is home to twenty-eight elementary schools, of which only four (including IPS) earned an A on their progress components. In English language arts, evidence shows that IPS students made progress similar to statewide expectations—about one year’s worth of growth. In math, however, there is significant evidence that students made far more progress than expected. The school also earned high marks for progress in certain subgroups: receiving a B for students identified as the lowest 20 percent statewide in reading, math, or science, and another B for students with disabilities.
The upshot? Both the state report card and in-house MAP growth data indicate that students at IPS are learning a lot. In many cases, they’re learning more than their peers in other schools and districts. If this growth continues, the school will be well on its way to keeping its promise to Akron families and the community. The New York Times is right: Only time will tell if these gains are sustainable. The job is only going to get harder as the school expands to more grade levels. But so far, students, school staff, and the Akron community should be proud of their progress. And so, too, should LeBron—the coolest thing he’s ever done is already paying dividends for kids.