Is LeBron James Writing the Playbook for Quality Public Schools?

Khalilah Harris discusses LeBron James’ I Promise School opening with Jose Vilson, National Board-certified teacher and founder of EduColor. She also visits a Baltimore area community school and makes connections to the purpose of education in a democracy facing deep economic inequality

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Story Transcript

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: I’m Dr. Khalilah Harris for the Real News Network.

On Monday, July 30, LeBron James of the Lakers, along with the LeBron James Family Foundation, the University of Akron, and Akron Public Schools announced the opening of LeBron’s I Promise Academy.

LEBRON JAMES: Kids just want to know if we care about them. They have the dreams, they have the aspirations, they have everything that they can actually get to whatever they want to get to in life. They just want to know that someone cares.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: I’m here with Jose Vilson, math educator in New York City, National Board-certified teacher, author, and founder of the EduColor movement. Welcome, Jose.

JOSE VILSON: Thank you for having me.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: You posted a tweet on Twitter after hearing about the founding of I Promise School, saying: A day after the latest LeBron James decision, and while I’m appreciative of James’ move, I struggle to celebrate when it shouldn’t take an athlete of James’ stature and status to get an amazing institution and learning for our most marginalized kids. Will you talk a little bit about what you meant by that tweet? What caused you to say something like that?

JOSE VILSON: Well, what we know about NBA athletes these days is that unlike in previous generations, this latest set of NBA stars is coming from mostly middle to upper-class upbringing, or they were given a bevy of opportunities to be able to get better at this thing we call basketball. LeBron James is that prototypical poor black boy who came from the hood, who had the struggles that he came up with. He is just a phenomenal athlete. So you have these really, really slim odds of a gentleman such as LeBron James coming up from the ranks, and then all of a sudden he’s the best player in the world, right.

But yet through that hard work and all that other stuff, because he’s able to accumulate all this fortune, he has to create a school for his hometown in order for that hometown of Akron to feel like they have an association that they can actually dedicate their students to. And unfortunately, that shouldn’t be the responsibility of somebody who’s amassed all this fortune, who’s, you know, worked hard to get to where he’s at. And it really ought to be a societal investment. And unfortunately we haven’t seen a societal investment yet. Instead we have folks who are either big philanthropists or celebrities or athletes who come in and say we’re going to create a situation for a select number of kids to be able to have this good fortune rained upon them.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Right. We heard Shawn Carter, otherwise known as Jay-Z, saying something very similar to you, where he pointed out that it’s not the requirement of affluent celebrities or athletes to be doing this work, that we all have to do our part. Will you talk a little bit more about what you think it will take for every child to have access to a quality school like the opportunities that are being offered at I Promise?

JOSE VILSON: Frankly, we would need a whole redistribution of what we consider wealth. When you have the largest, one of the largest countries, you have one of the most affluent countries in the entire world where you look at any number of the top 10, top 100, top 1000 of moneymakers in the world, then you see Americans all through it. And yet there is all of this inequity. You have a huge stratification between what we consider the poor and the rich. And then, you know, you look at the alignment between class and race, class and gender, and you start saying to yourself, wow, there are really big systemic things that ought to be cleaned up in order for us to actually get schools that all of our children, especially our most marginalized, deserve.

It would start with how we consider our school funding formula. It shouldn’t take a thing like a Title I, for example, a federal grant- which, by the way, is not necessarily guaranteed to all of our schools- in order for us to get even a semblance of what we consider equity. We need to really reconsider the whole redistribution of funds and wealth in our country and start right from the top and say, hey, we’re going to create a situation where everyone needs to pay more than their fair share in order to make sure that everything is equitable. Will everybody be able to [inaudible] that, not necessarily. But I think with mass movement, I think that is more than probable. I think it’s likely once we get enough people to realize that hey, the things that we invest in are the things that we will be able to actually get out of. So it can’t just be LeBron James saying, like, let’s create a school. It’s like, no, everybody is able to create the school. And it’s institutional, it’s a thing that our whole country believes in. But that’s obviously also going to be tied to things like racial attitudes, racial biases, and any number of systemic inequities that we can point to really pretty immediately.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: So I organized with the EduColor movement. You’re the founder of the EduColor movement. You use social media- and the movement was really founded in the midst of social media- to talk about some of what you just described. Educational equity, institutional equity, providing families and students with the types of opportunities we believe are required for them to live their best lives and have a quality education. Will you talk a little bit more about the use of social media to kind of expand the ideas about providing all students with high-quality schools?

JOSE VILSON: What’s critical about the EduColor movement is that it really did start with just a handful of people saying we don’t feel welcome on a racial level in any number of spaces, right. So there were spaces where we wanted to be activated, whether it be education activism in our schools, in our unions. Any number of spaces where the four or five of us just said, wow, we just don’t feel welcome at all. Even though our voices are valuable, we weren’t getting the proper treatment. So when we came together to discuss these issues there was a sense of relief, like there are more than one of us who really believes in educational equity and wants to do it from a very critical intersectional lens. That’s really important to point out, that it isn’t just about class. It’s any number of factors that are intertwined with class, whether it be race, gender, et cetera.

EduColor, then, became the space for everybody to have these difficult conversations, and to have them from a critical lens. With the foundation of empathy, social justice, and persistence of support. These are things that were foundational. It wasn’t just like it came forth because Twitter said so. It was very much like, no, actually, we are folks who are doing the work in our spaces, and we want to be able to create even more spaces for people to have conversations, but then also activate in these spaces. Being able to then talk back about any number of things, whether it be how we organize unions to discuss racial inequity, how we create public policy to make sure that all of our students are sort of, specifically our black kids, our brown kids, any number of students who feel like they are marginalized from what we would consider white, cis, hetero, normative situations, wealthy situations. We need to be able to talk back about that. It isn’t that we’re just giving whatever the wealthy have to what the poor have. It’s like, no, actually, we want to create conditions where we have enough resources that we’ll create agency and pedagogy and equity for the people who need it the most.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Great. Jose, you’re a classroom teacher. You talk about equity. You talk about how unions should be working for not only students, but for its members. It’s of note that the I Promise School is a public school. It is not an independent school, it is not a charter school. Now, what are your thoughts on that, and what should we learn from that as we try to replicate models possibly based on I Promise?

JOSE VILSON: What it seems to me is that lately there’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not charter schools versus public schools. Obviously we know that there is a big nuance between those conversations. You have spaces like Baltimore where any school would be considered charter. But you have foundations who say, well, we don’t really like the ones in Baltimore because they function more like public schools because they still have the hands of state and local governments being able to have some sort of accountability.

And so when I look at any number of celebrities who started charter schools at the peak of education reform post-2000, I would say anywhere between 2002-2015, those celebrities said we’re just going to create a school because we can. And it’s all well and good, and we can pull money from the district, that we could pull money from any number of hedge fund managers, and investors just say hey, we got this, we don’t need the district to be informed about what we do. The move towards public seems to be more of, I guess it’s a little bit more revolutionary, even. Because you’re almost saying, hey, I’m LeBron James and I believe in public function. And I’m actually going to invest in public function. I want that sort of level of accountability for the school that I want to create. And if I can do it, I’m pretty much putting everybody else who said that they want to pull away from this to shame.

So there is something to be said for somebody who says I believe in all these public functions, and I want everybody else to follow what I’m doing, because there is a public element that needs to be in this. Yes, I can very much create my own set of charter schools, because I’ve been an MVP. I’ve won gold medals around the world. I’m one of the most famous athletes ever. And yet and still he says there is something to be said for creating a democratic good, being able to come together and say, hey, this is the type of school that we need to create for every single body. And I will be willing to do my part and bring more people to do their part for the kids who are the most marginalized. That is such a critical element, instead of just saying we’re going to pull money from districts, we’re going to pull our kids away, and only give it to a certain sort of number of kids. It’s almost like he’s saying yeah, maybe that could be part of the thing that I’m doing. But it’s more like I want to be able to invest in every single body that’s here in Akron, and I’ll be able to do that with any number of your support. And if everybody else can just follow my lead, then maybe we can actually start doing things more institutionally and think about what it needs to create a democratic space for all of our students and all of our schools.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Just like Jose Vilson, after hearing the news about LeBron James’ I Promise School, many educators and advocates have been taking stock of what this investment can mean for developing safe and supportive schools across the country. I took a moment to visit a summer learning program at William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle in Baltimore, Maryland, implementing the Freedom School model, to discuss the new school with Alex Warrick-Adams, director of the Baltimore site for Elev8.

ALEX WARRICK-ADAMS: I think it’s really important, because I think a lot of people equate those sorts of schools with charters and private schools, and most of the community schools across the country and here in Baltimore are traditional public schools. So you don’t have to have sole autonomy over everything in order to dig deep and support kids and families. It is really important to underscore that having a traditional model, we can make this work together. And the school system can’t do it alone, and community-based organizations can’t do it alone. It’s really about partnership.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: So critics would say, you know, LeBron has poured as much if not more money into this school and any of the tech boom billionaires or hedge fund billionaires. But what we see here, as you said, is him making a concerted choice to have this be a public school, but not outside of the district. The other thing we see are the supports that he has put in place and the LeBron James Family Foundation have put in place for families and community. Will you talk a little bit about how critical that is, and how that might be replicated in other district areas?

JOSE VILSON: Of course this is all said under the auspices of say wow the results are going to be test scores right instead of safe. Well actually we just want to create schools that are yes perhaps highly demanding and yes we will invest. We want kids to be able to succeed and we want to create full human beings. There’s a lot of conversation. If you look at the research, and you say if there’s all these out-of-school factors, out-of-classroom factors that affect our children, we want to be able to pull some of that in and say, how can schools be hubs for communities?

And I think that’s really, that’s really where LeBron James is leaning. He’s saying, well, I know that, you know, when I was a child I was absent for any number of days because I had to deal with all the things that were happening outside of school. So why not create opportunities for families, entire families to say, hey, when I look at that school, that school is able to provide me with things like a GED. They don’t require me to pay for a uniform. They want to be invested in my own health through any number of clinics, any number of food banks. These are things that are, again, institutional. That’s such a, that’s such a big deal. It’s not enough to just say my kid performs well on test scores; meanwhile they’re starving and they don’t know where they’re going to live next.

And there is this serious, serious stratification of wealth within Akron, within Ohio, within the United States. And LeBron James is turning that on its head and saying, OK, so we got to think about the whole pipeline and how our children grow, and how our children learn, and how our children live as human beings. You know, being that model for that is obviously going to have real, real good consequences for all the kids who are in there.

ALEX WARRICK-ADAMS: I applaud LeBron on the work that he’s been doing with Akron School District, and opening the I Promise school. But you know, with all due respect, it is a community school. And here in Baltimore we’ve been doing this for almost 20 years plus, providing opportunities for kids, families, GED resources, uniforms, ensuring that kids have access to high-quality extended learning programming. With Freedom Schools we take that one step further by connecting that culturally relevant curriculum texts that students can identify with, that represent where they’re coming from, the walks of life. All different kinds of walks of life, not just black communities, but Latino communities, Asian communities.

So it’s really exciting to see somebody of LeBron’s caliber and a celebrity really taking what is true of community schools and blowing that up in a brand new school that is, in my opinion, built as a community school.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: So the model is, in many ways, a community school model, right. We see a national model for community schools. And we see communities around the country, whether it be in Baltimore or New York City, implementing the community school strategy. Have you seen effective models where there are community schools embracing the same kinds of philosophy?

ALEX WARRICK-ADAMS: What I notice, there is some sort of- there are types of resources that are talking about community schools more. And I’ve been very fascinated, for example, with the Harlem Children’s Zone, and that there was-. They were probably the first example that I had heard of in New York City of someone who says we need to do any number of things to make sure our children are OK. Unfortunately, that also meant that the same folks who were promoting charter schools are promoting this, community schools as separate from the district, if you will. Also came the same case of test scores. When Jeffrey Cantor said something like well, we’re really not that invested in test scores, per se, we’re really more invested in these other elements, that’s great, and that’s good on him. And then that also means that all of our schools, then, need to start thinking about what the language is that we use to determine whether or not our schools are successful.

So for me, I’ve seen some of those models, but those models often don’t say, well, what about the test scores and how are they coming out versus saying are our children learning? How we ask them. Are communities satisfied, have we taken a public poll? Are we getting a good sense of the stories that are happening there? There’s a sense of not just making it about quantity, but also about quality, and the qualifications for what does it mean to have a good school. And it starts from, you know, the mayor, all the way up to the governor, all the way up to our president. And of course, you know, we can’t always rely on that at this point at a federal level. But I think in the state and local level there is finally a movement, a shift towards talking about what it means to be a good school.

So a community school as a public school would be a really nice marriage, because again, it’s about democracy. That input and access that communities that really need more folks to hear from them can actually be heard. And there’s somebody who says at the top, oh wait, I actually believe in what these people are saying, and we need to have that conversation and that dialogue so we can move in the right direction for our whole community.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Well, thank you, Jose. I’ve appreciated reading your book This Is Not a Test. For those of you who are interested in checking that out, please hit up your closest bookseller. And thank you for joining us today, we appreciate you.

JOSE VILSON: Of course. Thank you for having me.

ALEX WARRICK-ADAMS: I think for Elev8, you know, our main vision is to ensure that every school community that we partner with, all those students in those communities are prepared for high school, career, and life. It is really important to us that kids feel safe and supported through our comprehensive after school program, through our signature summer experience Freedom Schools, which we partner with the Children’s Defense Fund. It’s really about connecting kids and exciting them about the learning.

KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Absolutely. I’m Dr. Khalilah Harris for The Real News Network. The future depends on knowing, and if you’re interested in having independent news brought to you from a news network that’s for the people and by the people, consider making a donation today at TheRealNews.com/donate.