LeBron’s I Promise School: Addressing Root Causes

Most of us have been raised to believe that school is the great equalizer, the ticket to success in life, or the escape from the circumstances into which you were born.

For many people, this adage has undoubtedly been true.

This principle is what drew me into education — that providing high-quality educational opportunities could help those who had fewer advantages given to them in life and could thereby inspire and uplift future generations.

I have worked to provide direct educational and wrap-around services to students and families and supported and coached school teams trying to do the same for their communities.

However, the more time I spend in urban education, and the more I read about and study the history of it, the less I am convinced of this idealism.

Certainly, I still believe that schools have the potential to be incredible hubs of learning, caring, and growing — for students, staff, and families alike.

However, for communities and populations whose opportunity to take advantage of “the great equalizer” has been quietly and systematically squandered by discriminatory and self-serving policies (For a primer, read James Ryan’s Five Miles Away, A World Apart), schools simply cannot overcome the influence of these social and political forces and their resultant effects alone.

Of course, I still wholeheartedly believe in the power of family and community engagement, in the promise of community schools, and in the hope that dedicated and compassionate professionals bring to the students and families they serve.

Yet, we must address the root causes of the challenges faced in order to see systemic change in our educational systems across the country. 

Yesterday, basketball star LeBron James made a landmark announcement that works to address these root causes for students at his I Promise School here in Ohio.

In partnership with a boutique hotel chain, the Lebron James Family Foundation will be renovating a historic building near the school’s campus in order to provide transitional housing for families of students at I Promise who are experiencing homelessness.

For those families, this is a game-changer.

In the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the definition of homelessness has a much wider reach than some could imagine. 

According to the law, those designated as “homeless” refers to “… individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This could include: 

  • Living with other family members or friends (known as being “doubled up”);
  • Staying in a motel, hotel, or shelter;
  • Waiting for placement in the foster care system; or
  • Staying somewhere that is not a “regular sleeping accommodation for human beings,” such as in a car, at a park, or in an abandoned property.

Due to the wide variety of conditions that could qualify a person or family as homeless, it is often difficult to get an accurate estimate of the scope of the problem. 

A report from HUD estimated that on a single night in early 2018, over 552,000 people experienced homelessness, an increase from the previous year. 

One-third of this identified homeless population consisted of families with children.

However, it is likely that this estimate was unable to capture the full range of individuals and families without safe, permanent housing, especially those who are staying with friends or family. 

The effects of being homeless on children and youth are numerous and significant. 

Julianelle and Foscarinis (2003) write that the McKinney-Vento Act works to protect these students from unnecessary disruption and mobility, which can lead to inconsistent social connections and educational supports.

We know that students who are homeless are also likely to live in poverty, and this combination of traumatic situations can only amplify their effects; Murphy and Tobin (2011) discuss the wide range of effects that homeless students experience.

These include: health issues from less-than-ideal sleeping conditions and environments, reduced access to proper medical care, or an inadequate food supply; mental health issues stemming from an increase risk of being a victim of violence, a lack of stable social supports, and the stress of not having a stable or permanent home; and academic issues as a result of potential developmental delays; frequently changing schools; and high rates of chronic absenteeism.

To mitigate some of these many risk factors, McKinney-Vento enables homeless students to stay in the school they attended before becoming homeless, even if they are temporarily living in a different area; receive transportation to and from their temporary residence to that school; enroll into school right away, even if they do not have all of the necessary documents; and access supports at the school level, such as a designated liaison. 

Certainly, schools and districts have some control over the extent to which the McKinney-Vento regulations are implemented, and we can only hope that they err on the side of increased supports to this vulnerable population.

The Community Schools movement is another effort to help stabilize families and students in order to facilitate greater access to and success with educational opportunities.

Partnerships with community organizations and agencies, as well as rich and mutual home-school relationships are ways in which community schools work to mitigate challenges and support students and families.

For example, school-based coordinators can partner with and connect families to local organizations that focus on issues of housing and family stability, or they could spearhead efforts within the school to provide extra supports to students experiencing housing instability or homelessness. 

All of these efforts are admirable and helpful.

Yet, I still ask, “What more could schools possibly do?”

Although schools can support their students and families and connect them to community resources, it is very difficult for schools to address root causes of complex issues like poverty or homelessness.

I have seen some criticism that LeBron is being hailed as a hero while school districts that may want to support their students more comprehensively often do not have the funds to do so.

I argue instead that no matter how much funding schools get, it is unlikely that they could ever provide a stabilizing intervention like the one that LeBron James just promised to the most vulnerable families at the I Promise School.

We should use this initiative of an example of what could happen if agencies worked together more effectively, if true efforts were made to alleviate the damages done by years of discriminatory policy, and if compassion — not politics — was what ruled collective decision-making in education and society. 

From an evaluator standpoint, LeBron has created a beautiful natural experiment.

I do hope that there is research done to study the trajectories of these students and families, as they get settled in their new homes and later on in their lives.

From a human standpoint, I am simply thankful that LeBron has chosen to use his personal money to make what I know is an immeasurable impact on the lives of these young people and their families.