Will LeBron James’ I Promise School defy the odds?

Will LeBron James’ I Promise School defy the odds?

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LeBron James speaks at the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. Phil Long/AP

When it comes to dealing with issues of race and social justice, LeBron James has never been shy to speak his mind.

For instance, in a recent HBO series, “The Shop,” LeBron laments how in the NFL, “they got a bunch of old white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality.”

At a time when issues of race continue to play a prominent role in American society – from police killings of unarmed black men to racial disparities in America’s criminal courts – we find LeBron’s boldness and willingness to speak out on these issues commendable.

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.

Emphasis on teamwork

The I Promise School employs “rigorous problem-based, inquiry-oriented learning” that involves having students work together to solve problems. This is good because research has found that black students from low-income families prefer a more communal and collectivist approach to school work, not individualistic competition.

Positive disciplinary practices

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.

This family plan is also designed to help remove barriers to graduation. For example, providing free uniforms, a free bicycle and helmet, a computer to every student and an onsite laundry facility may help families who are short on cash get the things they need. This lessens the likelihood that children will be teased and bullied in school, which would create a negative school climate.

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.

A student at the I Promise School shows school pride by getting an ‘IPS’ design in his haircut. The school provided nearly 70 IPS students free haircuts from local Akron and Cleveland barbers on site as part of IPS’s celebration of Black History Month. I Promise School

Extended school year

The I Promise School is praised as being the first of its kind because it will have an extended school year that lasts from July to May. It also features longer school days from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Longer school days have been shown to promote attendance and positive academic outcomes.

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.

Renowned educational scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has stressed the importance of culturally conscious education. She also promotes culturally relevant teaching – which she defines as a “pedagogy of opposition” – especially if schools are to be successful with African American 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.

Research has also shown that priming students of color to believe race is a social construct, as opposed to biologically based, can actually improve educational outcomes by mitigating the risk of confirming negative racial stereotypes about academic performance.

Teacher diversity

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.

Nolan Krueger, Doctoral Student Researcher in the Department of Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin; Kevin O’Neal Cokley, Professor of Educational Psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies, University of Texas at Austin, and Marlon L. Bailey, Doctoral Student in the Department of Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dangerous stereotypes stalk black college athletes

Dangerous stereotypes stalk black college athletes

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Brains vs. brawn: Does big-time college sports value black student-athletes?
Brynn Anderson/AP

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.

McNair also appears to have fallen victim to a sports culture in the U.S. that promotes a win-at-all-costs mentality. This culture also places an inordinate amount of emphasis on generating revenue. And it represents a damaging view of masculinity.

I make these arguments as a scholar who focuses on the nexus between sport, education, race and culture.

Perceptions of black strength

I assert that black males in general, and black student-athletes in particular, are viewed primarily as physical beings – sometimes seen as “beasts” and the like. This dehumanizes them in ways that threaten their well-being.

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.

Former Raven John Urschel opens up about retirement, concussions, football and math.

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.

The stereotypes about black males’ work ethic in sports like football and basketball has resulted in their higher incidences of cardiac deaths.

Not valued for intellect

Black student-athletes are also subject to educational neglect. Consider, for instance, the various academic scandals in big-time college sports. Some of these scandals involved cases in which black male athletes were found to be illiterate, but still allowed to compete in their respective sports and generate millions of dollars for the institutions.

Black males are often deemed as intellectually inferior and morally deficient. For example, black males are disproportionately more likely to be enrolled in special education courses versus gifted courses in the K-12 education system. They are also less likely than their white peers to have their race and gender associated with being intelligent or academic achievement.

For black male athletes, the dumb jock stereotype is commonplace and reinforced by the fact that they are more likely to be admitted to college academically underprepared, more likely to be enrolled in perceived “easy” or less rigorous courses so that they can remain eligible to play sports, and less likely to graduate compared to their peers.

Despite this academic neglect, black males continue to constitute a majority of the participants on football and men’s basketball teams, 55 and 56 percent, respectively, in big-time college sports. This highlights how they are more valued for their athletic abilities than for their academic promise.

This is what enables sports organizers and coaches to present college sports to black males as a viable way to make it in society.

Missouri wide receiver Nate Brown holds a ball during an NCAA college football practice, Aug. 3, 2018, in Columbia, Mo.
Jeff Roberson/AP

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.

Beyond the glitz and glamour

This type of pathological labeling applies in football. Black males’ physicality is exploited. For example, at the University of Alabama, where head coach Nick Saban is paid US$11.1 million per year, black males represent 80 percent of the starters on the team. Yet, not only are black male student-athletes not equitably compensated based on market value for their athletic abilities, they also graduate at a lower rate – 59 percent – compared to 71 percent for their athlete peers and 67 percent for the general student body. Thus, they are simultaneously academically underserved and athletically exploited in terms of economic compensation.

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.

Joseph Cooper, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, University of Connecticut

This article was originally published on The Conversation.