Which made it surprising to us that plans for a public elementary school in Akron, Ohio that four-time NBA MVP LeBron launched in 2018, to help students who are struggling to stay on track academically, largely ignored how important race is in educational attainment.
While we can appreciate the NBA great using his star power and considerable wealth to open a school for children in his hometown who are struggling academically, much like LeBron once was himself, we levy this criticism from our vantage point as scholars and students who study race in education. One of us – Kevin O’Neal Cokley – is an education scholar who has studied and written a book about the psychological and environmental factors that impact black student achievement. Two of us – Nolan Krueger and Marlon L. Bailey – are doctoral students in an educational psychology department.
Before we explain why we believe the I Promise School should deal with race more boldly and more explicitly, let us first identify the areas where we believe the school is getting things right.
Instead of relying on suspensions and expulsions, which tend to disproportionately impact black children, the I Promise School relies on what the school’s leaders refer to as the five “habits of promise.” Those are: problem-solving, perspective, partnership, perseverance and perpetual learning. This is especially important given how school suspensions and expulsions lead to higher dropout rates.
Values and supports families
One of the things that stands out most about the school is its “I Promise Family Plan.” This plan offers a range of supports and resources for students and families. The resources include a food pantry, a barbershop and hair salon, and help for parents to improve English comprehension and earn their GED.
Especially noteworthy is the school’s treatment of fathers. Instead of assuming that fathers are not involved in the lives of their kids, the I Promise School has a Father’s Walk Day in which fathers are formally welcomed to the school.
The school also features a seven-week summer session focused on STEM designed to help prevent the “summer slide” – that is, the loss of learning students suffer during summer vacation.
Questions about race
Despite the many things to like about the I Promise School, we question whether and to what extent the school deals directly with issues of race. Scholars such as Richard Milner suggest that schools must confront both poverty and race in the classroom in order to create optimal learning.
Educators with a critical understanding of how race and poverty manifest in the classroom might rely less on an one-size-fits-all curriculum and instead ground learning in an understanding of the lived experiences of their students.
Since the I Promise School has students from diverse backgrounds, some might ask why we think the I Promise School should confront race and poverty.
It is true that students are selected for the school based on their test scores and how behind they are in reading, not on race or any other demographic characteristic. However, the reality is the I Promise School is located in Akron, where the student population is disproportionately black – 46.1% – compared to 13.8% of national K-12 enrollment. Furthermore, Ohio has a staggering “achievement” gap between black and white students, with only 37% of black children in Ohio reading at grade level compared with 70% of white children.
The I Promise School’s 20-page master plan document does not focus on issues of race or race-equity despite research that shows some of the most vexing issues facing students – such as disparities in graduation rate, literacy and higher education admissions – are linked to race and poverty.
Prominent educational scholars such as Tyrone Howard have asserted
that when educators ignore race or adopt colorblind approaches, they fail to realize that avoiding the topic denies students an essential part of their being. This in turn only increases the likelihood of race becoming an explosive topic.
One critical factor to consider is the racial composition of the school’s staff, administrators and, in particular, teachers. Research suggests that students do better when their teachers look like them and can relate to their experiences. For example, it has been shown that black children are assessed more harshly for disruptive behavior when their teacher is white as opposed to black. Research has also shown that exposure to just one black teacher between grades 3 and 5 reduces the rate of dropout for black male high-schoolers.
Based on the school’s staff directory, the I Promise School appears to be lacking in teacher diversity – something we believe that the school should be more mindful of in the future.
Will the school defy the odds?
To be clear, we are celebrating LeBron James for fulfilling his dream and creating the I Promise School. He deserves praise for caring enough to give back to the community where he grew up.
The I Promise School could be a big “win” for students and LeBron James, a man who has dedicated countless hours and millions of dollars toward positively impacting Akron’s youth. We believe if the I Promise School incorporates social justice and the primacy of race into its approach, it could be transformational for its students. If, however, the school fails to address issues of race and equity in its design, the school likely won’t spur the generational change that proponents of the school envision.
Editor’s note: Officials affiliated with the I Promise Academy declined to comment directly for this story but cautioned against judging a school based strictly on publicly available documents.
If you go strictly by the official account, heatstroke was the cause of death for University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair. McNair died earlier this year following a grueling practice in which training staff failed to properly diagnose and treat his condition.
But there’s another culprit – or at least a contributing factor – that should not be overlooked.
As I argue in my forthcoming book – “From Exploitation Back to Empowerment: Black Male Holistic (Under) Development Through Sport and (Mis) Education” – what threatens black college athletes such as McNair is not just the brutal treatment to which they are subjected on the field.
Rather, it is a long-standing and deadly stereotype in American society that views black males as subhuman and superhuman all at once.
This stereotype, which is complex and has many layers, holds that black male athletes have superior athletic abilities that enable them to excel at high levels in sports such as football. The stereotype also holds that black males have a distinct physicality that allows them to endure extreme amounts of pain.
This is the same myth that was used to justify the enslavement and mistreatment of black people in America from before the Civil War through today’s era of mass incarceration. In fact, a case can be made that there are many parallels between the exploitation of black student-athletes today and how black labor was exploited during American slavery.
Although such terms as “beasts” are widely embraced in mainstream culture and in some instances by black athletes themselves, such as Marshawn Lynch, whose “Beast Mode” clothing line is drawn from his nickname, these terms are still harmful. This is especially the case in sports, where masculinity is equated with toughness, playing through pain and not giving up.
It may be true that these ideas are applied to male athletes in general. But these views impact black males even more due to their unique experiences in the United States. Just as they did during the days of chattel slavery, I argue that deeply embedded stereotypes about the physical capacity of black individuals to endure pain results in their perpetual mistreatment in the sports arena.
This is what enables sports organizers and coaches to present college sports to black males as a viable way to make it in society.
The view of black males as super-human is present in arenas other than sports. It lurks behind many of the police killings of black men of late. This was highlighted in the infamous police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson described the 18-year-old Brown as a “demon” and “Hulk Hogan”-like.
With both stereotypes – subhuman and superhuman – in play, black males within sport and beyond are systematically dehumanized and consequently deprived of the love, care and attention that should come with their humanity.
The large amounts of money being generated in college football, along with the increased commercialization and celebrity flair associated with the sport, creates an illusion of fun, American grit and a unique brand of entertainment.
But behind all the glitz and glamour are factors that contribute to the exploitation of athletes. These factors also result in undetected or undeserved – and entirely preventable – long-term health problems such as depression and high blood pressure, and in some instances, deaths.
The need for reform
In terms of medical coverage, colleges are not required to assist college athletes beyond their athletic eligibility years even though injuries they suffer in college can affect them for the rest of their lives.
Over the past several decades, organizations such as the National College Players’ Association have advocated for increased medical coverage and protections for college athletes. The founder of the NCPA, former UCLA player Ramogi Huma, established the advocacy group after he discovered that the NCAA prevented UCLA from paying medical expenses from injuries that occurred during summer workouts.
University of Maryland President Wallace Loh recently stated that the university had accepted “legal and moral” responsibility in the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair. That’s a step in the right direction.
An acceptance of responsibility is not enough, though. Serious systemic reform and a change in culture is needed. These changes must address racism and racist stereotypes that lead to mistreatment of black athletes.
U.S. society must also confront its unhealthy obsession with sports glory, commercialism and overall neglect of athletes’ rights and well-being.
One important reform that should be adopted immediately to benefit all college athletes is to require all medical staff for teams be independent from coaches’ and athletic department authority. This was something reportedly proposed and rejected at the University of Maryland.
There should also be an advocacy group separate from the NCAA to help college athletes negotiate with the colleges they attend for improved working conditions related to safety and their overall well-being. This includes an improved academic experience, mental health support, and help with making the transition to their life after sports.