Jennifer Pignolet, Akron Beacon Journal, July 27
This fall’s class of eighth graders at the I Promise School hasn’t had a single student pass the state’s math test since the group was in the third grade.
“Not one? In three years?” Akron Public Schools board member Valerie McKitrick asked after that data point was presented to the board earlier this week.
“It is discouraging,” responded Keith Liechty-Clifford, the district’s director of school improvement.
Five years into the I Promise School, a public school that operates in partnership with the LeBron James Family Foundation, Akron school board members are starting to ask questions about whether I Promise is living up to its academic promise.
The goal of the school is to serve as an intervention for the district’s lowest-performing students starting at an early age. It is a rare — if not unprecedented — model in education nationwide.
But Monday night, the board dug into some of the academic data from the school in its first five years and voiced concern the effort has not yet seen the results that they had all hoped.
The state has also issued its first concern about the school: Two of I Promise’s biggest subgroups of students, Black students and those with disabilities, are now testing in the bottom 5% in the state, landing the school on the Ohio Department of Education’s list of those requiring targeted intervention.
The school receives the same local, state and federal funding as any other public school. But on top of that, the foundation has given up to $1.4 million each year for additional tutors and more teachers in younger grades to lower class sizes.
The foundation also partners with other organizations to provide significant wraparound services and support for students, from job training and high school equivalency courses for parents to housing for students’ entire families if needed. The onsite Family Resource Center, staffed by the foundation, has been so successful at connecting with families the model has now been replicated at other Akron schools through partnerships with the United Way of Summit and Medina Counties.
In a statement following Monday’s meeting, the foundation said it was committed to the work.
“When we started this work to wraparound students through education, we entered this partnership with Akron Public School for the long haul,” the statement said. “Because this work requires a long-term commitment, hard work, and a lot of love and care. And that’s what we bring each and every day because the I Promise School is more than a school. We’re here for the ups and downs, and will continue to wraparound our students and their entire families so they can be successful in school and in life, no matter the challenges and obstacles that come their way.”
The school enrolls students in third grade through a lottery. Students are entered into the lottery if they are in the bottom 25% of reading scores in the district. Students with significant disabilities who are already served in other specialty programs are removed from the lottery. If their child is picked in the lottery, parents receive an invitation to enroll their student in the school, or they can stay at their current building.
But comparing I Promise students to their peers who qualified for the school but attend elsewhere shows that I Promise students are doing worse in some cases, despite the extra staff and wraparound services.
Last year’s fifth grade class has double the number of students proficient in reading from when they were in fourth grade, from just under 6% to 13% of the class.
But last year’s sixth graders lost ground. When they were in fifth grade, 7% were proficient on the reading test. In sixth grade, just 2% were.
But when school’s first class of eighth graders graduated from I Promise, just 11% of them tested proficient on the state English language arts test.
The incoming group of eighth graders, the ones who haven’t tested proficient on the math test in three years, weren’t always struggling at that level. Their first year in the school, when they were in the third grade, 17% of the class tested proficient in math. The following year, there were no tests because of COVID, and ever since, they have not had one student pass the test. On the English test this spring, 8% of them tested proficient.
The school takes in the district’s most vulnerable students, many of whom have endured significant traumas in their lives or have learning disabilities. The school also lost its founding leader during its third year, and then had three interim principals in a year and a half. The school named a new permanent principal last school year, but she left the district at the end of the year.
At I Promise, Black students make up about 60% of the school. About 28% of the school’s 555 students have a disability.
Two years ago, 10 teachers resigned from the school, tied for most in the district. Last year, five teachers left.