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LeBron’s new documentary tells the story of his I Promise School in Akron

The series reveals the struggles of both students and teachers with poverty and trauma

A sobering fact is buried beneath the avalanche of accolades LeBron James received for starting the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio: Every child in the school has serious problems.

All of them arrived with reading deficiencies, and overall academic scores in the bottom 25% of the school district. Some of the children were homeless, or had medical problems, or fractured families. They had experienced drug raids or the violent death of siblings. These traumas are the root causes of their academic struggles and provide deeper meaning to I PROMISE, a documentary series released Monday on the new short-form content platform Quibi.

The I Promise School, which opened in the fall of 2018, is not a private academy or charter school that can select and reject students based on income or ability. It’s a public school that grew out of James’ determination to help kids like him, and his enduring commitment to Akron.

The I PROMISE documentary series will be aired on the new short-form content platform Quibi.

LeBron James Family Foundation

As related in the film by his mother, Gloria, who gave birth to James at age 16, they were often homeless, and James missed almost 100 days of elementary school one year. James’ athletic talent encouraged a network of coaches to house and nurture him. But he is well aware that without those gifts, he probably would have fallen through the gaping holes in our educational system.

When James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers from Miami in 2014, he launched I Promise with the Akron Public Schools district as a part-time enrichment program for third graders who could not read at grade level. James’ next step was pledging that every I Promise kid who graduated from high school could attend the University of Akron for free. In 2018, he gathered all his kids into one school.

That’s where the film begins, chronicling the school’s first year. Directed by Marc Levin and produced by James and his business partner Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Entertainment, it’s broken into eight-minute episodes as part of Quibi’s short-form, mobile-centric format. Five of the 15 episodes were made available to The Undefeated ahead of the release.

James’ growing film and TV production empire can at times seem self-referential, like Oprah Winfrey on the cover of every issue of her magazine. The LeBron brand is the hook for I PROMISE, as he appears on the movie poster and introduces the first episode. In a scene from the first day of class, students assemble in the school entrance beneath a wall laden with James-model Nikes. “I thought this was a store full of shoes,” one kid says. But as the episodes progress, James recedes into the background. Rather than serving as an infomercial for his charitable endeavors, the film allows a compelling cast of students and educators to reveal their struggles.

The children’s lives in I PROMISE are powerful examples of how the trauma of American poverty, especially in black neighborhoods, creates behavioral problems that impede learning.

LeBron James Family Foundation

The children’s lives are powerful examples of how the trauma of American poverty, especially in black neighborhoods, creates behavioral problems that impede learning. When Nate, a third grader, speaks directly into the camera about being unable to sleep because of gunshots and sirens at night, you understand why he often bolts out of his classrooms or distrusts his teachers. When Dae’Shaunna, a vivacious third grader with Serena Williams beaded braids, says all her previous teachers “wanted to get rid of me,” you don’t blame her for climbing into a classroom locker and closing the door on herself.

Teachers are given equal billing as they deal with Akron’s concentration of educational dysfunction. While the kids are often stoic when speaking to the camera, the teachers can be vulnerable. “I feel I failed you as a leader,” the principal says during one tearful staff meeting.

But the children are the emotional backbone of I PROMISE. Director Levin, like a good teacher himself, waits patiently for them to reveal themselves. When they do, through an anguished glance or a hopeful declaration, it’s an urgent reminder of our collective responsibility to the most defenseless and needy among us.

Admirably, LeBron James is doing his part.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.