AKRON, Ohio — It's a day marked with not only celebration, but with moments of reflection.
“Without this program, I don’t think I would truly be where I’m at and have everything that I have now,” says Don’Marie Reid, a graduate from Akron Early College High School. Reid is among the first class of students in the "I Promise" program to graduate.
The program, created by LeBron James and the Lebron James Family Foundation in 2011, was set up to provide extra resources and support for students in the Akron Public School District who were identified in third grade as at risk of not graduating high school based on testing.
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“They’ve allowed us into their life, struggles, and into their successes to be better,” said Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation.
Ten years ago, more than 300 students joined the first class of the "I Promise" program. About half of those students have since moved or left the district, leaving 169 students. Today, 114 are eligible for graduation and dozens of other students are still in the process of completing final assignments, credit recovery courses and summer classes to graduate this year.
Over the years, the graduation rate in the Akron district has increased from about 76 percent in 2011 to a little over 80 percent in 2019. However, because data on Ohio graduation rates lag behind a year, understanding the impact the "I Promise" program has had on current graduation rates won’t be known right away. It may take years of research and data to understand the full impact, according to Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James.
“We have some high hopes, but COVID really did a number on us when the kids switched to remote learning,” said James. “I think every district is dealing with that.”
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Campbell said the foundation focused on the immediate needs of students during the COVID-19 pandemic, which included food deliveries and making sure students had medical care.
“What we did was move into survival mode and how do we address immediate needs,” said Campbell.
It’s been a challenging year, but the foundation notes that defining success for the program begins with students reaching their goals and walking across the stage.
“To see a student, that you walked alongside, especially during the difficult times, get their diploma and walk across stage, hands down best moment ever,” said Campbell.
What comes next will look different for each student. Jonathan Cumberledge wants to work with animals and plans to go directly into workforce. Reid and Alex Knight both plan to attend Kent State University on the I Promise Scholarship.
The foundation also plans to continue to offer support to students when they leave high school. On campus at the University of Akron, the foundation has opened the "I Promise Institute," where students can go for extra resources, snacks, or to simply hang out.
“The road isn’t always straight,” said Toni Montgomery, the foundation's director of strategy, culture and operations, “It’s bumpy. It’s lumpy. We’re trying to respond to their needs.”
The needs of students and their families continue to evolve. What started in the classroom has expanded across an entire community. The foundation hopes to redefine what a community looks like – and the impact it can have on a child’s future.
“There’s work to be done,” said Campbell. “And our work needs to be better and more intentional than it was yesterday and that’s what we’re going to do."