LeBron James Is Schooling Us on What Education Reform Got Wrong

National headlines offering hope about the state of American education this year have been few and far between. Until last week when LeBron James announced he was opening a school.Ohio has been trying to stomach the four-time NBA MVP’s decision to leave his home state to join the Los Angeles Lakers. But even with his much-mourned departure, James will keep one foot back in Ohio in a big way: supporting a new school model, called the I Promise School, as a joint effort between his family foundation and Akron Public Schools.Social media lit up praising the litany of services the school will offer to students and families alike: among them, free uniforms, bicycles and helmets, transportation, breakfast, lunch and snacks—and not to mention guaranteed tuition to the University of Akron to every student who graduates. And the school is arguably much more than a school. It will also serve families with supports like a food pantry and GED programs and job placement service for parents.Behind the promise of a full stack of supports—which in education circles are often referred to as “wraparound services”—is also a deeper sense of connection James hopes students will gain from this approach. As he explained to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols “[In] fourth grade, I missed 80 days of school. That following year I met the Walker family, and they had a support system. I met some little league coaches playing basketball and football and the following year I didn't miss one day of school.”In other words, besides more resources and better academics, relationships are a core part of the model James is trying to get right. “I think that’s what kids ultimately want, they just want to feel like someone cares about them. And that’s what we’re trying to do here,” he told Nichols.James’ move should inspire a generation of policymakers to acknowledge that until we fund poverty relief in tandem with academics and stronger relationships, achievement gaps and opportunity gaps will persist.At a price tag of $2 million from his family foundation in its first year James’ approach to I Promise is arguably expensive. But the premise is not actually that complicated. He’s effectively highlighting that to thrive, students from low-income neighborhoods need what amounts to a three-pointer in today’s opportunity equation: financial capital to buffer against poverty, human capital like skills and credentials to compete in today’s economy, and social capital, or supportive relationships, to help young people get by and get ahead.Education systems and policymakers should take note.The wisdom behind integrated student supportsWeaving more services together to support students growing up in poverty is not a new proposition. As community schools and wraparound services models like I Promise emerge in high-need neighborhoods, researchers have begun to study the science behind approaches that deliver what they call “integrated student supports.”“Integrated” is a key word here. One of the fatal flaws of our current public systems is how frequently education and social services occur in siloes. Programmatic siloes separate a byzantine array of providers. Geographic siloes separate where children and families have to go to access those services. And fiscal siloes splinter and dilute funding streams intended to support those children and families.National data showing improved test scores and graduation rates has begun to emerge supporting the wisdom of models like I Promise. By executing targeted poverty relief in tandem with academics, integrated supports can drive breakthrough results that siloed systems can’t. For example, one of the most promising providers, a program called City Connects, has posted improved test scores and down the line students graduate at nearly double the rate of comparison peers. The program places a school site coordinator inside each of its partner schools who coordinates support services with each and every student and family, in close partnership with teachers.Truly integrated student supports, in other words, hinge on facilitators actually knowing each student and his family. They are engaging in and brokering the same authentic relationships and resources that LeBron James is passionate about delivering to Akron’s students.The missing ingredient in education reformJames’ investment is a big statement on the state of American schools. Without saying so outright, he’s addressing a major gap between rhetoric and reality over nearly two decades of education reform. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act was premised on the theory that by setting high standards for all students and holding school systems and states accountable to reaching those standards, schools would improve. In what now is clearly seen as an utter act of hubris, NCLB’s early champions insisted that by 2014 there would be no achievement gap by race and class in America. Fast forward to 2018, and in places like Akron, chronic achievement gaps have persisted at alarming rates.The resources and relationships James plans to bring to I Promise are a big part of the equation to help low-income and minority students succeed. Education policies that support high expectations academically are rarely matched with sufficient investments and infrastructure that could reliably address chronic barriers to learning that poverty erects.James’ move should inspire a generation of policymakers to acknowledge that until we fund poverty relief in tandem with academics and stronger relationships, achievement gaps and opportunity gaps will persist. A few states are already moving in this direction. Washington State, for example, created an Office of Integrated Student Support. Indiana is also making significant investments in integrated student supports. More states should follow suit.As James makes the move to the Lakers, there are skeptics who think he’s foolish to invest his talents in a team that hasn’t made it to the playoffs in years. But he’s not taking the bait. “I like the challenge of being able to help a team get to someplace they haven’t been in quite a while,” he told ESPN’s Nichols. Hopefully he can do the same for our education system.