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I Promise supporters fill room at Akron board of ed meeting to defend school

A screenshot of I Promise School supporters at Monday's Akron Board of Education meeting.
Akron Public Schools
A screenshot of I Promise School supporters at Monday's Akron Board of Education meeting.

Supporters and employees of the I Promise School and the LeBron James Family Foundation packed the room at the Akron Board of Education meeting Monday, arguing that the school and its students were painted unfairly as low-performing during a recent meeting and in the media.

Supporters of the school - which is a public school in the Akron Public Schools system but receives additional funding from James' foundation - like Victoria McGee said the positive things happening at the school can't be measured by students' performance on standardized state tests.

"The data presentation approved by the Akron School Board and supported by AEA (Akron Education Association) has further marginalized already disadvantaged students, yes further marginalized already disadvantaged students," said McGee, who is the director of the school's family resource center. "To ostracize students, to belittle them to their peers, family and community is reckless and unacceptable. Furthermore, your actions degraded every Akron public school educator that has ever taught the current and past I Promise School students that you have singled out locally and nationally."

McGee was referring to a presentation given in late July to the Akron Board of Education on I Promise students' academic performance, which showed those students struggling on a number of fronts, especially when it comes to their scores on state tests. For example, the inaugural class of third- and fourth-grade students’ English and math scores plunged since they started at the I Promise School in 2018-2019 and are only just starting to recover. However, other measures of student performance showed I Promise students struggling about as much academically as peers at other Akron schools; meanwhile, the pandemic has caused serious setbacks for low-income and disadvantaged students across the country, not just in Akron.

RELATED: LeBron James' I Promise School faces tough questions about student performance

During that recent meeting, Board President Derrick Hall and other board members questioned why students were performing so poorly on those tests despite the additional resources given by the LeBron James Family Foundation.

McGee and others argued that it felt like the school board was targeting the I Promise School unfairly.

"It is my hope that around the table we can come together as partners and end the toxicity, the callousness and the negative narrative created about the I Promise School," she said.

Hall, in remarks after the public comment period, said he and the board's comments were being misconstrued as showing a lack of support for the school.

The school by design only takes students who are two or more years behind grade level, and it employs a lottery system to admit those students. Hall noted that that lottery system was tweaked last year after it was found to have been admitting too high of a number of students with disabilities than staff could appropriately focus enough attention on. He said that's an example of how improvements can be made to the I Promise model, and to other schools, by critically analyzing shortcomings.

"As has already been rightfully pointed out," Hall said," a number of our schools are struggling. It's not just one school in particular, which is... why we're beginning this series of being more transparent with the community about how our schools are doing, what the areas of opportunity are. At day's end, the goals of all of this is to optimize performance in our buildings."

Annette Richardson, an advisor to the LeBron James Family Foundation, said the the foundation's approach - which includes providing housing, job training and other resources to Akron families - is "among the most successful" she's seen in her years of public service.

"The LeBron James Family Foundation aims to uplift young minds and the families from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds," she said. "Their dedication is worthy of admiration as they strive to create opportunities and empower your community's most vulnerable students."

RELATED: LeBron James' new House Three Thirty aims to boost Akron's families and economy

McGee said the kind of change the LeBron James Family Foundation is trying to achieve to uplift families will take a long time; the school has only been open since 2018.

"We remain committed to the important work for the long haul and have long recognized that this is not a sprint," she said. "This is a marathon, baby. It's a marathon."

Hall said the board of education will be hearing a follow-up presentation on academic performance at I Promise School and other schools across the district soon.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.